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ENVIRONMENT

France reverses car tyre sea sanctuary – an environmental flop

What seemed a like a crazy idea turned out to be just that: a 1980s experiment that saw 25,000 car tyres dumped into the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean to create a sanctuary for sea life off the French coast is being cleaned up after it was found to be polluting.

France reverses car tyre sea sanctuary - an environmental flop
Crew members of the Ocea vessel take part in an operation to remove tyres from the Mediterranean Sea on September 21st. Photo: AFP

Since the start of last week, divers and a specially equipped boat with lifting gear have been fishing out hundreds of the old loops of rubber about 500 metres (1,600 feet) from an exclusive coastline between the towns of Cannes and Antibes.

The original vision, backed by local French authorities at the time and fishermen, was that the tyres would become populated by coral and other sea creatures in a conservation area where fishing was off limits.

In France, the idea of a “tyre reef” was tried only here, but a local academic working on the clean-up operation said authorities in other countries, particularly the United States, had tried the same failed idea.

“We hoped (back in the 1980s) that we could restore aquatic life there, but it didn't work,” the deputy mayor of Antibes, Eric Duplay told AFP. “It turns out that the tyre reef was not a prolific place for biomass.”

Denis Genovese, the head of an association of local fishermen, confirmed that most Mediterranean lifeforms had shunned the idea of living inside mad-made products manufactured out of rubber, resins, oil and other chemicals.

Sedentary creatures such as the local scorpion fish didn't use them, Genovese said, while “grouper fish, conger eels and sea bream swim around them, but no species really got used to it”.

Worse, a study in 2005 by researchers at the University of Nice showed that the tyres were leaking toxic chemicals into the environment, including heavy metals, which are a threat to human life.

Authorities were also worried that the tyres could degrade further, nearly 40 years after they sank to the seabed, and break up into smaller pieces which would be a risk for nearby seagrass meadows.

In 2015, a first mission to remove 2,500 tyres was undertaken to show that they could be extracted safely, with the work underway at the moment a second and more important phase of the clean-up operation.

Around 10,000 are set to be lifted by the divers and boat crew over the next few weeks, with the remaining 12,500 extracted in the second quarter of 2019.

Last week, dozens of tyres were hauled from the sea, with the luxury holiday villas of the French Riviera visible on the coastline behind.


Photo: AFP

The Saudi royal family own a huge villa on a small stretch of beach opposite the site, which was the focus of a scandal in 2015 when King Salman tried to privatise the sand for his holiday and caused an uproar among locals.

The fine white sand is a problem for the clean-up team of divers, which struggle with low visibility as they find the tyres and thread them on to wire cables which are then lifted to the surface.

“In the morning, it's easy, the water's clear,” crew member Morgan Postic on board the Ocea vessel said. “But as we stir it all up down at the bottom, you can't see anything and it gets much more complicated.”

The tyres will be sent to the nearby city of Nice and then to recycling centres where they will be broken up into granules that can be used in construction projects.

“After that we'll leave the seabed to restore itself naturally and we'll continue to monitor with censors,” said marine scientist Patrice Francour from the University of Nice, who is working on the issue.

Francour said the clean-up would end France's one and only experiment with a “tyre reef”, but that other countries still had to deal with the legacy of the failed idea,notably the United States.

A million euros has been provided by the French state to finance the French clean-up, while French tyre company Michelin has contributed 200,000 euros.

READ ALSO: France to set penalties on non-recycled plastic next year

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ENVIRONMENT

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Firefighting teams and equipment from six EU nations started to arrive in France on Thursday to help battle a spate of wildfires, including a fierce blaze in the parched southwest that has forced thousands to evacuate.

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought – conditions most experts say will occur more often as a result of rapid climate change.

“We must continue, more than ever, our fight against climate disruption and … adapt to this climate disruption,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said after arriving at a fire command post in the village of Hostens, south of Bordeaux.

The European Commission said four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania.

“Our partners are coming to France’s aid against the fires. Thank you to them. European solidarity is at work!” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.

“Across the country over 10,000 firefighters and security forces are mobilised against the flames… These soldiers of fire are our heroes,” he said.

In total, 361 foreign firefighters were  dispatched to assist their 1,100 French colleagues deployed in the worst-hit part of the French southwest.

A first contingent of 65 German firefighters, followed by their 24 vehicles, arrived Thursday afternoon and were to go into action at dawn Friday, officials said.

Among eight major fires currently raging, the biggest is the Landiras fire in the southwest Gironde department, whose forests and beaches draw huge tourist crowds each summer.

It had already burned 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) in July – the driest month seen in France since 1961 – before being contained, but it continued to smoulder in the region’s tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.

Since flaring up again Tuesday, which officials suspect may have been caused by arson, it has burned 7,400 hectares, destroyed or damaged 17 homes, and forced 10,000 people to quit their homes, said Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Mendousse of the Gironde fire and rescue service.

Borne said nine firefighting planes are already dumping water on the blaze, with two more to be in service by the weekend.

“Gigantic”
“We battled all night to stop the fire from spreading, notably to defend the village of Belin-Beliet,” Mendousse told journalists in Hostens.

On several houses nearby, people hung out white sheets saying: “Thank you for saving our homes” and other messages of support for the weary fire battalions.

“You’d think we’re in California, it’s gigantic… And they’re used to forest fires here but we’re being overwhelmed on all sides — nobody could have expected this,” Remy Lahlay, a firefighter deployed near Hostens in the Landes de Gascogne natural park, told AFP.

With temperatures in the region hitting nearly 40C on Thursday and forecast to stay high until at least Sunday, “there is a very serious risk of new outbreaks” for the Landiras fire, the prefecture of the Gironde department said.

Acrid smoke has spread across much of the southwestern Atlantic coast and its beaches that draw huge crowds of tourists each summer, with the regional ARS health agency “strongly” urging people to wear protective face masks.

The smoke also forced the closing of the A63 motorway, a major artery toward Spain, between Bordeaux and Bayonne.

The government has urged employers to allow leaves of absence for volunteer firefighters to help fight the fires.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, more than 1,500 firefighters were also battling a fire that has raged for days in the mountainous Serra da Estrela natural park in the centre of the country.

It has already burned 10,000 hectares, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).

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