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Divers rid waters of old tire reef

U.S. Army deep sea divers began work Monday to remove hundreds of old tires from the waters off Saltwater State Park in Des Moines.

The multi-agency project is part of a larger effort to replace the artificial reef in the area. The tires, up to 1,200 by some accounts, were tied together and sunk in the water in the 1970s, said Greg Bargmann, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Marine Ecosystem manager. But 30 years later, scientists with the involved agencies now realize tires are not the ideal material for building a sea life habitat.

The U.S. Army, U.S. Army Reserve, Washington State Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Ecology, Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, Washington SCUBA Alliance and the Northwest Straits Commission are all working together on the tire removal. Each agency plays a small part in removing and disposing of the aged rubber and installing a new reef. Similar efforts will take place in approximately 20 sites in the Puget Sound, said Kara Steward, Department of Ecology environmental scientist.

“If we weren’t all teamed up together, the reef wouldn’t be replaced,” Steward said.

Saltwater State Park was the highest priority location because of the number of tires submerged in the water and the frequency of recreational diving in the area, Bargmann said. The tires need to be removed because they emit low levels of toxins into the water and they do not adequately encourage sea life growth, he said.

Divers aimed throughout this past week to remove between 500 and 800 tires that rested in piles on the Puget Sound’s floor. On Tuesday, deep sea divers from the active-duty U.S. Army Dive Company, based in Fort Eustis, Va., plunged into the 40- to 50-foot deep water and threaded a wire cable through the opening in the tires.

The ends of the cable were fastened to a large, inflatable bag that was then pumped full of air. With guidance from a small boat, the bag floated — tires hanging from its belly beneath the water’s surface — to a nearby Army Reserve LCM-8560 water craft.

The divers’ jobs were completed once the bag reached the LCM and a second Army Reserve vessel nearby. There, a crane lifted the bag and its cargo from the water and placed it on the LCM vessel, where Spc. Joel Siemienczuk and Spc. Lindsey Rabe, both Army reservists, unloaded the tires.

The dive company participated in the project as a way to gain real-life diving experience, said Sgt. Samuel Carter of the Tacoma-based Army Reserve Water Craft Unit. The project gave the divers an opportunity to practice extracting real objects, not fake cargo, he said. The Army spent approximately $782,000 in operational costs, including about $344,000 on safety precautions, on the project, Carter said.

“The main thing is training,” Carter said. “The Army would spend (the money) anyway, so why not do something good for the environment?”

The disposal of the tires will be done by the Department of Ecology. Though recycling the tires would be ideal, Steward was unaware of any place that would accept such aged and degraded rubber, she said.

“I’d expect they’d all be land-filled,” Steward said. “They’ve been sitting in water for 35 years.”

The agencies’ goal was to remove as many tires as possible in a week’s time. Steward expected to dispose of 8 tons of tires, she said. The artificial tire reef, which was a common practice in the 1970s, will be replaced with a reef made of much more natural materials, Bargmann said.

“For a successful reef, you want to mimic nature,” he said.

The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission will place rocks and concrete pilings, among other things, to create a new artificial reef, Bargmann said. These items will provide fish with hiding places of various sizes and shapes, he said.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com.

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