Fallout from Bad '70s Idea: Auto Tires in Ocean Reef Divers are beginning to remove some 2 million used auto tires that were dumped into the Atlantic Ocean, off the Florida coast, in the 1970s. The move was intended to create an artificial reef to promote sea life, but the tires became an environmental blight.

Fallout from Bad '70s Idea: Auto Tires in Ocean Reef

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It seemed like a good idea at the time. In the early 1970s, more than two million tires were dumped into the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. The idea was build an artificial reef that would promote sea life. Instead, the opposite occurred. The massive tires turned out to be a blight. Environmentalists have spent decades wondering how to remove them. Now, as NPR's Greg Allen reports, county, state and federal authorities think they've found the answer.

GREG ALLEN: It's an area about a mile off the Atlantic Coast, a spot between two living reefs, where, 30 years ago, a group of fishermen organized a campaign to dump used tires.

WILLIAM NUCKOLS: The original intention was a good one, which was trying to provide a fish habitat and add to the natural coral reefs that were there.

ALLEN: William Nuckols is with Coastal America, a federal office that's helping coordinate the cleanup. The plan was approved by the county and the Army Corps of Engineers and hundreds of thousands of old tires were bundled and dropped overboard.

NUCKOLS: Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)

ALLEN: At a Coast Guard base in Dania Beach, 40 Army, Navy and Coast Guard divers unload their gear from boats after a day spent pulling up tires from the sea floor. The area where they've been working is about 70 feet down and covers 34 acres.

JASON JAKOVENKO: You get down about 20 feet and it starts to come into sight. It's actually - it's like the moon or something. It's weird. It doesn't look like anything you can imagine. It's just tires for as far as you can see down there.

ALLEN: Jakovenko says using wire cables and lift balloons filled by air tanks, the divers have been able to bring up about a thousand tires a day.

JAKOVENKO: Once we get down on the bottom, we have a wire sling and the two divers that are down there just take the wire slings out and we just start putting tires onto the sling. Then we shackle them to the balloons and put air in the balloons and bring them up that way.

ALLEN: Nuckols says the final piece fell into place when Florida allocated $2 million to cover the transport and recycling of the tires.

NUCKOLS: So we're accomplishing this for $2 million and saving, essentially, the taxpayers $28 million in the process just by reorganizing government in a more efficient way.

ALLEN: The work carried out on the reef is just the beginning of a project that's expected to take three to five years. Even then, many tires will remain. But Banks says those that do the most damage will be gone and the coral reefs can begin to come back. It's a process, he says, that will take a long time.

KEN BANKS: Corals, for example, hard corals take many, many years to grow. So, it's going to take a long time for those organisms to resettle back onto that reef and grow up to their typical size. So, I think it will take decades for that reef to recover.

ALLEN: Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

MONTAGNE: Get a look at divers bringing the tires up from the ocean floor at npr.org.

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