The S.S. Badger, the last coal-fired steamship on the Great Lakes, runs from Ludington to Manitowoc, Wis. (Andy Klevorn / Ludington Daily News)
Federal environmental officials have reached an agreement with operators of the S.S. Badger to allow the coal-burning ship to continue operating through the 2014 sailing season.
The Ludington-based Lake Michigan Carferry Service Inc. was in danger of going out of business after U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials targeted the Badger's dumping of coal ash on each trip across Lake Michigan.
The firm will be required to eliminate the coal ash discharge by the end of the 2014 season.
"This consent decree offers the fastest and most certain path available to EPA to stop the discharge of coal ash from the Badger into Lake Michigan," EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman said in a statement Friday. "The enforcement agreement reduces the discharge of coal ash more quickly and with greater oversight than would occur during the appeal of a decision to issue or deny a permit — a process that often takes several years."
Since 2008, the ship carrying passengers from Ludington to Manitowoc, Wis., operated with a discharge permit issued under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. The permit expired in December, leaving the last coal-powered ship working the Great Lakes in danger of being shut down after 60 years of operation.
"The resolution of this issue has taken far longer than we had hoped, but the end result has been worth the effort," Lake Michigan Carferry Service President Bob Manglitz said Friday in a statement. "This agreement will save the jobs of our 200-plus employees as well as many other jobs in the states of Michigan and Wisconsin.
"We appreciate the support we have received from our elected representatives in Michigan and Wisconsin and the encouragement of the thousands of people who have supported our efforts to keep the badger sailing."
For the communities of Ludington and Manitowoc, Friday's announcement is a victory. The ferry service helps draw visitors from across the region.
But two groups, including the Michigan Environmental Council, criticized the EPA's decision.
"Why wait two years to do the right thing when we can start today?" said Melissa Damaschke, Great Lakes program director with the Sierra Club. " ...It's far past time for the S.S. Badger to begin to utilize cleaner alternatives for healthier residents and a cleaner environment.
"Instead of a green light to continue dumping toxic materials into the Great Lakes, it's time the S. S. Badger and the EPA put a stop to this dangerous and careless practice."
During the next two years, the Badger will be required to reduce the amount of coal ash dumped into the lake. A fact sheet released by the company indicates it will begin implementing a "sophisticated ash retention system" to bring the Badger into compliance with federal discharge regulations.
In recent years, Michigan Carferry officials floated the idea of burning natural gas as a fuel source for the Badger, but that option appears to have been shelved.
"Given the large investment in the ash retention system, natural gas is not likely to be an option in the near future," the company said in its release.