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Letter from Lake Michigan: Saying farewell to a much-loved old ferry

Instead of cleaning up the Great Lakes’ last coal-burner, it seems, S.S. Badger operators would rather play games with the EPA and public opinion.

This map, taken from Lake Michigan Carferry's application to the EPA, shows the area of Lake Michigan into which the S.S. Badger discharges nearly a ton of coal ash with each crossing, for a total of more than 500 tons per operating season.
Source: EPA

One night in August I unrolled a sleeping bag for the best four hours of sleep in recent memory. The sky was clear, the winds were light and the S.S. Badger, whose open upper deck has become a favorite accommodation, was gliding over the waves toward Ludington, Mich. I could tell by the stars overhead.

Monday morning, coming back, I watched with a heavy heart as the Wisconsin shoreline came into view. I was thinking this was probably my last trip on the old ferryboat.

After decades of special treatment under the nation’s pollution laws, the coal-burning Badger may have to shut down when its 2012 season ends in October.

But even if it escapes that fate, I can’t seem to let my love for this old boat override my disgust at how its operators have been pleading the case for its survival.

Dumping coal ash, a ton per trip

Heading for Michigan, it was after midnight as I made my way to the Badger’s forward deck, but there was still enough light for another passenger to spot something alarming. He called me to the rail and pointed down to a large, milky discharge streaming into the lake from an opening at the Badger’s waterline: “Shouldn’t somebody tell the crew about this?”

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I guessed, and later confirmed with Badger’s PR spokeswoman, that we were witnessing the vessel’s  method of coal-ash disposal. On each 60-mile crossing, nearly a ton of ash is mixed with lake water to make a slurry that is then pumped out through the hull.

(However, such discharges aren’t supposed to occur in port, so perhaps we were seeing a stream of plain water made milky by aeration; that’s kind of how it looked on the return trip, in daylight.)

It has long been illegal for, say, a power plant to dump coal ash into the Great Lakes. But it wasn’t until 2008, after a court order forced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to finally apply those rules to vessel discharges, that the Badger’s operators  had cause for concern.

Even then, EPA gave the Badger a five-year pass — through the end of this season — based on the operator’s assertions that by then they could end the ash dumping, either by retaining the waste aboard or by repowering the boilers with a non-coal alternative, such as diesel or natural gas.

Today neither solution is any closer to reality, and whether the Badger operators have made even a minimally sincere effort to fulfill their pledges is open to question.

What’s undeniable, though, is their investment in PR, petitions and lobbyists, as well as efforts to secure special treatment in Congress — including a bill to have the ship declared a historic national park property, and therefore exempt from EPA rules. Mind you, this is not the Clermont we’re talking about; the Badger and your correspondent are the same age.

A separate bill would extend the current situation indefinitely.

A glimmer of hope, now gone

Late last year, I was delighted to report a potential glimmer of progress — researchers from universities in Wisconsin and Minnesota had obtained federal funding for an engineering study on converting the Badger to run on natural gas, as many European ferries do.

But in correspondence that has since been made available on EPA’s website devoted to the Badger case, it now appears that even if such conversion were feasible, getting the gas to dockside is not — and maybe never was. DTE Energy, named by the Badger operators as their potential partner, told them it wouldn’t build a supply line “until there were enough customers to amortize the cost of doing so (tens of million of dollars)” and “without the infrastructure, this technology is not useable.”

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The nature of the Badger/DTE partnership is interesting in itself. Last November, a DTE spokesman told the Chicago Tribune, “They were quick to announce our participation, but we are not in any kind of agreement with the Badger and are not involved in any project with them.”

On Tuesday, DTE’s Scott Simons told me there is no current relationship nor even any current discussions between his company and Lake Michigan Carferry (LMC), which operates the Badger. The earlier discussions, he said, were brief and confidential.

Now LMC says it is exploring an alternative using liquefied natural gas. As evidence of its efforts it lists a handful of phone and email inquiries made on a couple of days this May, just before deadline for an EPA filing. Feasibility? Maybe someday.

Pleading for special treatment

Being on the Badger gives you a lot of time to read. On the way over, I read the petition the operators are asking passengers to sign for forwarding to “key politicans who will have an impact on the future of the S.S. Badger.”

Its main points: the Badger is an irreplaceable treasure and an important economic engine for its port communities; its environmental impacts are minimal, especially in comparison with the pollution it prevents by taking cars and trucks off the roads around Lake Michigan; the operators are trying to repower the vessel with natural gas but simply need more time.

On the way back, I read much of the voluminous EPA file on the Badger’s effort to seek a new kind of EPA operating license, known as an NPDES permit, presumably in case its legislative end-runs come up short.

In between I called Terri Brown, the PR manager at LMC, to ask for an interview with somebody who could explain to me why the coal ash can’t be kept on board during crossings and offloaded in port. After all, this was done at least once in 2008 to calculate the volume of ash being dumped in the lake, and it sort of seemed like the simplest solution of all.

I also asked her to point me to specific efforts  made by LMC to replace coal with other fuels during the five years it has been operating under its current permit.

In reply I got the company’s talking points, attached to an email stating that “recent information regarding the potential benefits of installing sophisticated combustion controls means that ash retention can be feasible within five years if natural gas cannot be implemented.”

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Meanwhile, she said, “Natural gas is by far the best long-term solution to make the Badger the greenest ship on the Great Lakes, and the maritime industry believes that natural gas may be the future fuel for all large ships in the future. We continue to pursue this option … .”

Later, in the EPA file, I noted that the Badger claims ash retention and land disposal is not feasible currently because of costs exceeding $700,000 per season or $5,000 per day for the cheapest method.

Of course, the Badger’s aim in these papers is to show that alternatives to current practices are unavailable, impractical or unaffordable. If it can prove that, it stands a good chance of continuing business as usual.

About those lab tests …

And what of LMC’s contention that “multiple tests by independent, E.P.A.-certified labratories (sic) of the residue have proven there is no harm to the environment”?

Coal ash is hardly the nastiest stuff around, but it does contain mercury, arsenic, lead and other metals, the levels varying somewhat with the type of coal and how it’s burned.

And the Badger‘s ash output is considerable. The Tribune reviewed Coast Guard documents and calculated that the 509 tons of ash discharged each by the Badger, the last coal-powered steamship on the lakes,  exceeds by more than fivefold the total discharges of coal, limestone and iron waste from the other 125 freighters operating there. Not quite apples to apples, but interesting for the proportion it lends.

And just what’s in the Badger’s ash? Even today, it’s hard to say.

To calculate pollution loads in connection with an NPDES permit, EPA typically requires data from 10 samples – in this case, ash shaken with lake water – but it offered to save the Badger some money by seeking just five.

In return, the correspondence shows, the operators submitted data from a single sample, which wasn’t prepared according to EPA protocols. After being put on notice that this could be grounds for denying the permit, LMC eventually arranged for the full five samples, but has been notified that “significant” issues with their collection and analysis remain.

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Paying the price for what we love

All of us who care about clean water and clean air must come to terms at times with the undeniable impacts of what we do and what we buy, with conflicts among the things we love. Sometimes that leads to painful choices.

In this instance, it isn’t really the Badger’s pollution of Lake Michigan with coal ash that’s made up my mind. I’m ready to believe – if shown reliable data – that the ash’s toxic content isn’t all that terrible, and that the Badger does, in fact, deliver a net benefit to the lake and surrounding communities by taking all those cars and trucks off the road.

What bugs me about the Badger is the way it’s playing games with EPA process and public opinion, spinning its decades-long history of preferential treatment into a victim narrative, pretending to seek a responsible solution while apparently just playing for time and sympathy.

No polluter welcomes regulation, and no polluter’s customer is overjoyed at paying higher prices as the cleanup costs are passed along.

But I think I can recall a time in this country when we seemed to recognize — if grudgingly — that environmental protection was both a common good and a common responsibility. Nowadays that spirit has been buried under a pile of special pleadings by outfits who think they shouldn’t have to play by the normal rules because their enterprise is historic or quaint or exceptional in some other way.

Every victory won this way makes it harder for us to find our way back to common ground. That’s why it would take more than a new permit for Badger to bring me back aboard.