On the shores of Lake Michigan, the tiny town of Ludington, Mich., is home port to the last coal-fired ferry in the U.S. The SS Badger has been making trips across the lake to Manitowoc, Wis., during the good-weather months since 1953. And as it runs, the 411-foot ferry discharges coal ash slurry directly into the lake.
An Environmental Protection Agency permit allows the Badger to dump four tons of ash into the lake daily. But now, the agency has put the permit under review — and that means the Badger could stop sailing.
Locals say the ship is a fundamental part of Ludington life — and brings $20 million into the local economy each year via jobs, motels, B&Bs, restaurants, gas stations, galleries and the bike shop.
People in this town of 8,000 had a lot to say about all this, including Chris Hinkle.
"I like the Badger. It's good for tourism and things like that. I don't feel that we should put any of my federal dollars into it, though," Hinkle says, referring to a one-time idea of using stimulus funds to help modernize the ferry. "It's got to support itself."
A Piece Of Living History
Down at the waterside, the SS Badger — that's SS for steamship — is at the dock all winter. Sixty years old, she's almost frozen in ice and time. The hull is black and the upper decks white with a black smokestack. The ship is longer, by far, than a football field.
From May into October, the Badger runs four hours each way to Manitowoc, Wis., and back daily, with two trips a day in deep summer. It can carry 600 passengers and 180 cars, buses, trucks — even those long white blades for wind farm turbines.
Kari Karr, who used to work for the Badger, is out in the snowy wind with me. We lean back to see the ship's pilot house towering five stories above us.
"It's so hard to picture, when you're standing here on a day like this ... what it's like to be up there, looking out," Karr says. "And then the ship pulls out and heads down the channel, and you're into the open water. I've loved doing it my whole life, and still do."
A meeting with some of the current employees while in Ludington was impossible because the company — LMC, or Lake Michigan Carferry — told them not to talk to reporters. LMC is concerned about the EPA's review of the Badger's permit — and the change that is likely to come.
The presence of the ferry is a real part of why people say they like this town. In season, people love to hear the Badger's steam whistle echoing out from the harbor. From her nearby antiques store, Sally Cole has been watching the ferry sail off and return for 27 seasons.
"We can see it right from our front window," Cole says. "During the season, coming closer to April, [customers] look out that way and say, 'Oh, the car ferry! Oh, look, the smokestacks going — they're running, they're getting ready to sail!' It's a big deal around here."
Cole likes to brag on the ship's crew. One day, a Wisconsin customer called the store to say, "That cupboard we were in looking at the other day — could we buy that, and you could send it to us over on the Badger?"
The shop blanketed and covered the cupboard, Cole says, "and we took it over, and they strapped it to the side of the ship, and it took a trip all by itself over to the owners who were waiting on the Wisconsin side."
Each Year, 500 Tons Of Coal Ash
A few blocks away, Bill Fay, a retired mental health worker, collects maritime artifacts. Fay likes to take his grandkids on the Badger. His dad was a chief engineer on one of the big boats, but started out shoveling coal.
"When I grew up in the '60s, you couldn't look out on that lake and not see a boat out there, whether it'd be a lower laker or one of our car ferries or whatever," Fay says. "They were all dumping the coal ash at that time, all through the '40s and '50s. I don't remember a fish die-off, or I don't remember any ecological disaster that came of that.
"Now, we got one little boat dumping a little bit of ash," Fay adds. "I think it's ridiculous."
Fay may have said "a little bit of ash," but it adds up. Every sailing season, 500 tons of coal ash slurry go into Lake Michigan. Arsenic, lead and mercury are all part of that waste mix.
During halftime at a high school girls basketball game, Mark Willis, a high school science teacher, shares what he would tell a student about the ash going into Lake Michigan.
"Obviously that's got to be corrected. Because the lake is our first priority," he says. "That's what Ludington is centered around, is the lake ... We chose to live in this area because of how good the environment is. There's many other things that do damage as well. I guess I'd be hypocritical just to say it's just because of the Badger."
Willis' wife, Joanie, says she, her husband and their three children go down to the water several times a week "just to watch [the ferry] come in, watch it go out ... It's part of growing up in Ludington. It's part of being here."
'Ludington Will Manage To Survive'
As for the negotiations over the ship's permit, here's what they might bring: The Badger could be switched over to diesel or natural gas. Or a way could be found to keep the coal ash onboard, then take it to a landfill.
But if the day ever comes when the ferry is retired — left at the dock — what would that mean?
"Ludington will manage to survive," says Brandy Henderson, who runs the town's convention and visitor's bureau. "We obviously have great beaches, [the] top state park in Michigan, many other assets of why people are coming here. But certainly the car ferry is the icon of our community, and without it, I think we'll be missing a large part of our identity."
The EPA says it expects a draft ruling later in March, followed by a period of public review, before anything is final. So the SS Badger will indeed open this 2013 sailing season the first week in May.