SS Badger has been dumping hundreds of tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan.
MANITOWOC, WIS. - 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 SS Badger dumps nearly four 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. 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 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.
'As harmless as sand'
Officials with the Lake Michigan Car Ferry Service, the company that owns the Badger, declined to be interviewed but said in an e-mail 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."