A car ferry that has traversed Lake Michigan for nearly 60 years could soon be put out of commission.
The S.S. Badger carries cars and trucks between Manitowoc, Wisconsin and Ludington, Michigan, saving drivers a long commute through Chicago. By the company's numbers, 45,000 people took trips on the ship in 2011.
It’s also a registered historic site and the nation’s only remaining coal-powered ferry.
But its permit from the Environmental Protection Agency is about to expire.
“It’s a dirty ferry that dumps tons of coal ash in Lake Michigan every year,” said Illinois Senator Dick Durbin.
The Democrat went on the attack when congressmen from Michigan and Wisconsin tried to slip an earmark into the House Coast Guard Reauthorization Act that would have exempted the Badger from regulation because of its historic status.
The amendment to the Coast Guard bill, introduced by Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.), made no mention of the S.S. Badger, but asked for special regulatory status for ships that are historic sites or have applied to be historic sites. In practice, there’s only one ship that would have been exempted from environmental regulation by that clause, and it’s the S.S. Badger.
“The S.S. Badger had better decide to change or find another business,” said Durbin, who accused Huizenga and Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) of trying to sneak through an earmark.
A new version of the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act passed in the House on Wednesday without the exemption.
Now the S.S. Badger’s future is in the hands of the EPA, which received an application for a new permit from the Badger earlier this year.
The EPA website says the Badger’s last permit application in 2008 included an agreement that the ship would seek to eliminate coal ash emission by Dec. 19, 2012, when the permit expires. Because the Badger has failed to make the required upgrades, it is now asking for a new permit that would give it more time.
Jennifer Feyerherm of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign said the S.S. Badger has been exempted from regulations in the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts for years.
"Lake Michigan itself is the source of drinking water for 10 million people. So dumping a toxic hazardous substance into the lake is just generally a bad idea," Feyerherm said. "We don't let this kind of dumping happen anywhere else. That toxic coal ash is full of heavy metals like mercury and lead and arsenic."
In order to eliminate coal, the ship could convert to running on natural gas. It hasn’t done that yet.
Representatives of the S.S. Badger declined to comment pending a decision by the EPA.