Florida takes another plunge to clean up massive tire reefs

MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida officials have resumed raising some of the hundreds of thousands of tires dumped off its shores decades ago during an unsuccessful attempt to create an artificial reef.

A salvage crew hauls up tires from Osborne Tire Reef off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Florida May 8, 2015 in this handout photo provided by Broward County, May 21, 2015. REUTERS/Broward County/Handout via Reuters

Between one and two million tires were piled in the waters around Florida in the 1970s, but coral and fish never took to them as hoped, according to Allison Schutes manager of the Trash Free Seas program at the Washington-based Ocean Conservancy. Now they are causing other problems.

“The ocean has ever-changing currents and storms, and they’re moving around and smothering and killing natural coral,” she said.

The cleanup effort, which began again last week, is focused on the artificial Osborne Reef, a massive pile of about 700,000 tires dropped near Fort Lauderdale by dozens of boats in 1972, said Pat Quinn, a Broward County natural resource specialist overseeing the cleanup.

The Florida legislature authorized $2 million for the work in 2007 and military divers began in 2008, exhuming nearly 62,000 from their watery graves, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Yet the effort stalled as divers, who were tethered to the surface wearing heavy suits, were called away over the years amid more urgent duties.

“We were fighting two wars, and there were natural disasters,” Quinn said. “When the earthquake happened in Haiti it was the same team who helped clear the port,” he added referring to damaged piers vital for offloading relief supplies.

With a remaining $1.6 million, Florida officials hope to raise another 90,000 tires over the next two years. The tires, which were dumped before recycling was possible, will be trucked across the state to Florida’s west coast and burned for energy at a Wheelebrator Technologies renewable waste plant near Tampa, owned by private equity firm Energy Capital Partners.

Still, more a half million will remain, partially buried on the sea floor.

Tires have also been used in artificial reefs off New York, California, and North Carolina as well as Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia. In most cases, such efforts were halted after tires were found to be unstable.

In Florida, leftover tires from the initial cleanup could be more problematical. They’re harder to pull up and have spread further apart, making the past technique of bundling a few dozen together and hauling them to the surface useless.

“It gets really expensive,” Quinn said. “We’ll have to rethink our whole methodology.”

Editing by David Adams and Susan Heavey