Taxpayers foot bill to retrieve sunken tires from failed offshore environmental project

What to do with a million used tires? Dump them in the ocean, of course.

As unthinkable as that idea is today, back in 1972, that was what Florida environmentalists chose to do, in an attempt to create an artificial reef. They gathered up old tires, ferried them a mile offshore from Fort Lauderdale’s world-famous beach and tossed them overboard.

“Ummmm, seemed like a good idea at the time. Looked good on paper," said Pat Quinn, Broward County’s environmental resource manager.

It wasn’t.

Now, the castaway tires are an environmental menace, and taxpayers are footing the bill on a new project to retrieve them. Quinn is project manager on the $1.6 million operation to undo the damage from the ill-conceived environmentalist push from the early ‘70s.

Back then, discarded car and truck tires typically were sent to a landfill. So a handful of Fort Lauderdale environmentalists — thinking they were doing the earth good — got permits to bundle the tires and sink them adjacent to the reef that runs up the Florida coastline.

They thought coral would grow on the tires, attracting more fish and aquatic life.

But routine storm surges ended up breaking the bundles apart and slamming the tires into the healthy reef. Coral didn’t grow on the rubber, the fish didn’t come and, today, there’s a ghostly wasteland of tire after tire as far as the diver’s eye can see.

“The first impression of every diver who goes down there is the same. … It's just spooky,” said Rocco Galletta.

His company, Industrial Divers Corp, has the contract to remove 90,000 of the tires – of an estimated 1 million-2 million total submerged tires.

It’s a two-year contract and they began hoisting up the tires, 30 at a time, in May. He says his crew has a sense of not only cleaning up an underwater mess but improving the health of the ocean.

“Well, you see a lot more whitewall tires than you’d ever see anymore, a lot of whitewalls down there and slicks, you know, from hot rods from the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he said. 

On the plus side for his crew, Galletta said, “We haven’t seen any sharks. We know they’re out there, but they don’t bother us.”

The 1972 blunder probably would never happen again, considering the advent of tire recycling in the 1990s. Today, shredding and recycling tires is a booming business, contributing to bouncy playgrounds, artificial football and soccer fields, and rubber mulch for gardens.

So far, Galletta’s dive crew has tediously brought up 20,000 of the tires. But they have a long way to go.

Once the tires make it to land, they’re trucked upstate to be burned in a power plant incinerator, to produce green electricity.

So, four decades later, the old tires are finally doing some environmental good.