When I was a little boy visiting the New England Aquarium, that once state-of-the-art facility that remains today a tired but still beloved attraction on the Boston waterfront, there were three small displays that always drew my attention away from the vast, central tank with its sluggish sharks and meandering sea turtles. The first showed Boston Harbor's past - I believe it might even have had a sunken tea chest - , with abundant lobsters and anemones and bright, clear water. The second was so fouled with pollution that I felt very bad for the few living things that were forced to call it home. The third showed an artificial reef made of old tires, a mid 1970s vision of ecological restoration that offered the possibility of mitigation through recycling, if not a return to Paradise lost in the first tank.
If these displays still exist, and indeed over the decades the venerable aquarium has stayed much the same as when I knew it as a child, they may need to rethink the third tank. A vast artificial reef of tires off Florida's coast, once heralded as a model solution for the rehabilitation of a damaged marine ecosystem with convenient waste disposal benefits for those of us onshore, is now roundly considered a monumental ecological disaster. In 1972, more than 2 million scrap tires, compressed and bound together and accompanied by a gold plated tire dropped from the Goodyear Blimp, were enthusiastically dumped offshore as a potential grouper haven and foundation for establishing new coral growth.
The Washington Post reports:
"What happened instead is a vast underwater dump -- a spectacular disaster spawned from good intentions. Today there are no reefs, no fishy throngs, just a lifeless underwater gloom of haphazardly dropped tires stretching across 35 acres of ocean bottom.
It's not just a matter of botched scenery. Because they can roll around, the tires are pounding against natural reefs nearby.
'It's depressing as hell,' said Ken Banks, a reef specialist for Broward County, who recently explored the site. 'We dove in and swam for what seemed like an hour and never came to the end of it. It just went on and on.'"
Apparently, coral does not adhere to synthetic rubber the way it does to the steel hulls of sunken ships. Florida's DEP and various other local and federal agencies are attempting a cleanup using military salvage teams to recover the tires. Disposal costs after recovery are estimated at $3-5 million, which works out to less than $3 a tire.
Back in the heady, post Earth Day climate of 1972, this looked like a very good idea. It has taken 35 years to make a course correction, and stands as an abject lesson in good intentions gone awry, demonstrating the perils of good intentions coupled with partial solutions.