— Built in the 1950s for the brawny task of ferrying railroad cars, the last coal-burning steamship on the Great Lakes is billed today as a nostalgic vacation shortcut between Wisconsin and Michigan.
But every day it sails between this old shipbuilding port and Ludington, Mich., the Badger dumps nearly 4 tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan — waste concentrated with arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxic metals. During its spring-to-fall season, federal records show, the amount far exceeds the coal, iron and limestone waste jettisoned by all 125 other big ships on the Great Lakes combined.
Decades into efforts to clean up the world's largest source of fresh surface water, the Badger's routine dumping is so unusual that, in 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave its owners four years to find a solution. At the time, they vowed to either overhaul the aging coal burner or store the ash for safe disposal onshore.
As the last season before the EPA's deadline comes to an end, the owners instead are seeking an exemption from the federal Clean Water Act that would delay a fix until at least 2017.
By then, the Badger's owners and backers say, the 410-foot ferry might be fueled by cleaner-burning natural gas, a first for a U.S. ship that big. They say such an upgrade would eliminate the ship's noxious coal smoke and murky discharges, making it the "greenest" commercial vessel on the Great Lakes.
If the EPA allows the ash dumping to continue, it will be the Badger's latest pass from environmental laws that other ships, including a competing car ferry that runs between Milwaukee and Muskegon, Mich., have complied with for years.
To buy more time for the Badger's two massive steam engines, supporters have organized a public relations campaign that casts the ship as a small-town operation struggling to preserve a maritime icon. They portray the EPA as overzealous bureaucrats threatening 250 full-time and seasonal jobs and millions of tourism dollars in two Midwest cities hit hard by manufacturing plant closings and cutbacks.
Local officials in Manitowoc and Ludington also are tapping into Republican efforts in Congress to scuttle environmental regulations as they lobby lawmakers to secure another reprieve for the Badger.
"The EPA should pick on bigger fish than this," said Ludington Mayor John Henderson. "There are a lot of other environmental issues that deserve more attention than a historic ferry that happens to dump a few pounds of ash into the lake."
Based on the Badger's 134-day operating schedule, the ship discharges about 509 tons of coal ash into the water each year. By contrast, freighters that ply all five Great Lakes collectively dump about 89 tons of coal, limestone and iron waste into the lake annually, according to Coast Guard records.
Coal ash pollution drew national attention in 2008 after a holding pond ruptured at a Kingston, Tenn., power plant and fouled an Ohio River tributary. Since then, the EPA has been mulling more stringent rules to ensure safe disposal of the toxic waste, which the agency says poses "significant public health concerns."
A spokeswoman in the EPA's Chicago office said the agency has been discussing a new permit with the Badger's owners. No decisions have been made.
Officials with the Lake Michigan Car Ferry Service, the company that owns the Badger, declined to be interviewed but said in an email response to questions that they had spent $250,000 studying ways to comply with the Clean Water Act.
"We wish every element of our lives could be totally green," the company wrote in one of its newsletters. "There are no off-the-shelf solutions, and the EPA recognized that there was no practical way to eliminate the discharge immediately." In other public statements, company officials have said the ship's coal ash is "as harmless as sand."
"Finding a safe, feasible and environmentally-friendly option with natural gas is very important to our company," Lynda Matson, the Badger's vice president for customer service and marketing, said in a recent update posted on the SS Badger website.
Two things stand out when riding on the Badger: It is considerably larger than other passenger ships on Lake Michigan — on a recent afternoon one vehicle on board was a wide-load tractor-trailer carrying silo-sized tanks for Bell's Brewery in Kalamazoo, Mich. — and its thick, black smoke is full of ash flakes that settle on the deck.
During the four-hour cruise, crew members sell snacks, show movies and organize bingo games. Many passengers read books on the ferry's glass-enclosed aft deck amid the dull rumble of its 7,000-horsepower engines.
"I would hate to lose the convenience of travel and the thrill of days gone by," said Barbara Bennett, a retired autoworker who lives part time in Ludington. "It's a piece of history, but they should make it a cleaner ship."
The Badger's pollution is a byproduct of technology that already was becoming obsolete when the ferry was built. By the time it started carrying freight cars for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in 1953, dozens of other coal-burning ships were being retired or converted to cleaner-burning diesel fuel.
Newspaper clippings dating to the mid-1960s show the Badger's air and water pollution became a festering problem well before the current anti-EPA fervor in Washington.
People frequently complained about coal smoke wafting into Manitowoc and Ludington and "black, viscous liquid" being discharged into the water. Gaylord Nelson, the late Wisconsin senator who founded Earth Day in 1970, pushed to eliminate ship pollution on the lakes, focusing his efforts in part on the Badger.
When the C&O moved to abandon its Lake Michigan ferries in the late 1970s, railroad officials testified that traffic had declined so much that the operations no longer were profitable. Moreover, they said, coal smoke from the ships violated federal and state air quality laws and the company had decided it would cost too much to install pollution controls.
Investors who saved the Badger from the scrap yard in the 1980s won special exemptions from Michigan and Wisconsin air quality laws that kept the ferry's coal smoke legal while other polluters cleaned up. The current owners later rejected state aid to convert the Badger to diesel, telling the Ludington Daily News in 2001 that they wanted to run the business "without governmental assistance."
More recently, the Badger's owners have been competing with the diesel-powered Lake Express ferry for business and government help. The Badger opposed $17.5 million in federal loan guarantees that kick-started the Milwaukee-to-Muskegon service in 2004; last year, the Lake Express lobbied against a $14 million federal stimulus grant the Badger sought unsuccessfully to covert the older ship to diesel.
The Badger's supporters suggest the latest plan to convert to natural gas is the only way to preserve the ferry's role in promoting tourism around Manitowoc and Ludington. Company officials commissioned a study that estimated the ship draws about $35 million a year to both communities.
Local businesses have chipped in to raise awareness about the debate. In Ludington, the Jamesport Brewing Co. started serving Badger Brown ale during the summer at its downtown pub, with a dollar from every pint sold donated to the S.O.S. Badger campaign.
"I tell people it's like one of our factories: The Badger means jobs and economic development," said Manitowoc Mayor Justin Nickels. "The owners are trying to convert to something cleaner, but it's not something that can happen overnight."
However, questions remain about the proposed new fuel source, as natural gas traditionally hasn't been used to power ships. And critics say the Badger's owners already have had plenty of time to fix its pollution problems.
"All of the other ferries and ships that ply the Great Lakes have found ways to comply with our modern environmental laws," said Lyman Welch, water quality program manager for the Alliance for the Great Lakes. "This is a glaring exception."
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