MANITOWOC - Time could be running out for the coal-powered SS Badger.
The ferry that hauls passengers, cars and even semi trucks across Lake Michigan from Manitowoc to Ludington, Mich. is being singled out for the fuel it uses and the pollution it creates.
When the Badger first set sail on Lake Michigan in 1953, it was one of hundreds of vessels run on coal on the Great Lakes. Today, though, it's one of a kind.
"We're the only boat on the Great Lakes that burns coal. We're the only boat in the U. S. that burns coal," said Bob Manglitz, president and co-owner of Lake Michigan Carferry, which operates the Badger.
Manglitz showed us around the ferry his group took over in 1993. Originally built to haul railcars, it's now a passenger ferry able to transport 600 people and about 180 cars at a time. It runs five months out of the year.
And yet after nearly 60 years of operation, this historic vessel is facing environmental scrutiny because it operates on coal. And it could be forced to shut down.
"I think the fundamental question is can we do it cleaner?" asked Jennifer Feyerherm with the Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club. "This is absolutely an antiquated technology. We got our trains off of coal, we stopped heating our houses with coal. We need to get this ferry off of coal."
Feyerherm is distressed at not only the black smudge coming from the Badger's smokestack, but more importantly what you can't see going into the water.
When coal is burned to power the ship, it creates a coal ash. That coal ash is then flushed out into the water as the boat crosses Lake Michigan. The dumping is perfectly legal as long as it happens at least five nautical miles away from shore.
The Badger dumps some four tons of coal ash a day when its operating.
"Coal ash is full of a suite of toxic heavy metals thinks like mercury, arsenic and selenium," explained Feyerherm. "These are heavy metals that don't break down in the environment. They're metals, so once they get into the lake they are there to cycle in the eco-system and build up in the fish and build up in our bodies and really that's the danger of coal ash."
And while potential dangers may exist, test after test of the coal ash show levels below Environmental Protection Agency standards. Laboratory testing documents submitted to the EPA show very small levels of pollutants such as mercury, aluminum, iron and magnesium among others. But all are within EPA standards. Although the EPA is requiring more test samples to be submitted.
The EPA set coal ash dumping regulations four years ago with the plan to eliminate all dumping at the end of this year. Once again, the Badger is the only coal-burning vessel out there.
"We believe it's not damaging the environment. We don't believe it's affecting the quality of the water. We don't believe it's affecting any aquatic life," said Manglitz.
But following the EPA's plan to eliminate coal ash dumping, Lake Michigan Carferry in 2008 began looking look for a cleaner way to operate. Manglitz says they've explored several options that all come with challenges, including off-loading the coal ash in port, converting the engines to run on diesel fuel or - Manglitz's number one option - run the ferry on liquefied natural gas.
Wisconsin's Energy Office even awarded the company a $75,000 grant to explore that option. Engineers figured out the total cost to accomplish a conversion to liquefied natural gas would be $11 million.
But the money is just half of the problem for Manglitz. He said he could make the conversion if he had the right amount of time.
"Providing I'm given the time through the individual permit," said Manglitz.
Lake Michigan Carferry filed that permit application back in May asking for five more years to make a switch from coal dumping, while at the same time working to make the current operation cleaner.
But more than just the operation of the Badger is at stake. Manglitz says while his business is good, it has been even better for the communities it serves.
"We've brought over a half billion dollars, not million that's billion, to these two communities," said Manglitz of his port cities of Manitowoc and Ludington.
We spoke with both mayors and they too sing the Badger's praises. Both are urging the EPA and lawmakers to keep the Badger running.
"It's one of our largest tourist attractions it brings in multi millions of dollars with en economic impact every summer," offered Manitowoc Mayor Justin Nickels.
"The economic impact here is huge, it's not just in Ludington, not just in Michigan it's in both our states," added John Henderson, mayor of Ludington.
The Michigan impact is estimated at $20 million a year. In Wisconsin, it's $15 million.
The Badger not only attracts money-spending business and tourist travelers, it employs more than 200 workers, and hundreds of other jobs are created in both communities it serves at the stores, restaurants and hotels.
Therefore, local businesses have a vested interest in keeping the Badger operating.
"Absolutely that's a lot of jobs, a lot of jobs out there for housekeepers, and front desk and all throughout and it trickles over to restaurants, and gas stations," said Jeff Curtis, manager of the Holiday Inn Express in Ludington. He says his business increases up to 40 percent when the Badger is in operation.
Manglitz expects to hear from the EPA on whether its permit is complete later this month. If all is in order, public hearings would be planned a decision likely reached before the ferry season comes to an end in mid-October.
"I believe (liquefied natural gas) is the future of not only the Badger but the maritime industry itself," said Manglitz offering his commitment to change.
"Ferries are a good idea. They are an efficient way to transport people and cars across the lake, much better than going all the way around the lake - if it is done cleanly and a floating coal plant is not a clean way to do it." added Feyerherm.
The Badger does have one other option to stay in operation - an amendment to the Coast Guard Authorization Bill making its way through Congress. The House passed the measure which keeps in place "current" EPA regulations regarding the Badger.
Congressman Tom Petri, a Republican representing Wisconsin's 6th District, is one of the authors of the amendment. But the Senate, where there is some opposition, has yet to bring it up for a vote.
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