It took only days to create what was touted as the world's largest artificial reef in 1972, when a well-intentioned group dumped hundreds of thousands of old tires into the ocean.
But the tires turned out to be a reef killer, turning a swath of ocean floor the size of 31 football fields into a dead zone. Now divers expect to spend years hauling them to the surface.
Military crews began retrieving the tires this week from about 70 feet underwater, where they had broken loose from bundles and wedged along a natural reef. As of Thursday, they had pulled up about 1,600 of the estimated 700,000 tires that must be hauled to the surface.
The tires are "a constantly killing coral-destruction machine," said William Nuckols, who is coordinating the cleanup. "They had to come up."
The dumping of nearly 2 million tires began in 1972 with much fanfare by a group called Broward Artificial Reef Inc., which had the approval of the Army Corps of Engineers, support from Goodyear and help from hordes of volunteer boaters.
The project was intended to attract a rich variety of marine life while disposing of tires that were clogging landfills.
But hurricanes, tropical storms and cold fronts created wave action that loosened the tires and moved them around, killing part of one of three coral reefs off Fort Lauderdale, said Broward County marine biologist Kenneth Banks. Hundreds of tires have also washed up on beaches over the years.
If left unchecked, the tires could kill acres of coral and eventually start destroying other nearby reefs.
Divers from the Army, Navy and Coast Guard are cleaning up the mess, which already has proven to be much trickier than making it. The teams have been hampered by thunderstorms, wind-whipped waves and a balky crane that brought operations to a halt Thursday.
Weather permitting, divers will spend the summer months for the next three years bringing up the 700,000 tires while leaving behind the ones that seem to have remained in place — at least for now.
Tires to be burned, used as power
The tires will be trucked to a Georgia facility where they will be burned to power a paper recycling plant at a cost to Florida of $2 million.
Broward County says it sees about $60 million in annual tourist revenue from marine and dive-related activities and it cannot afford to lose one of its most treasured natural resources.
The cleanup was organized by Coastal America, a Washington-based conglomeration of employees from government agencies who tackle marine problems. Banks said the cleanup project would have been nearly impossible if not for the cooperation of the various agencies, including the military, Broward County and the state.
Officials estimate the project would have cost nearly $30 million if done commercially, but the military is offering its services for free as part of training exercises for its divers.
"Any single government entity would bankrupt itself trying to do this," Banks said.
Using two-man teams, divers spend about 40 minutes at a time underwater, pulling the tires from the sand, stringing them together and raising them to the surface using inflatable bags. A crane aboard a 174-foot Army boat then hoists the tires from the water.
Army 1st Lt. Russell Destremps said the operation provides a rare opportunity for divers from three military outfits to hone their skills together.