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Lake Michigan town fears losing historic ferry

John Flesher
AP Environmental Writer

Ludington, MI — On many summer evenings, Jim Fay joins dozens of onlookers on this tourist town’s waterfront, exchanging friendly waves with passengers and crew members as the S.S. Badger chugs into the harbor after a 60-mile voyage across Lake Michigan from Manitowoc, Wis.

It’s a cherished ritual in Ludington, and its days may be numbered.

The Badger, the nation’s last working coal-fired steamship, is under orders from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop dumping waste ash into the lake. Coal ash contains low concentrations of arsenic, mercury and other heavy metals, although it’s not classified as hazardous. The ferry discharges more than 500 tons during a typical season from May to October, and operators say there’s no quick fix.

If the standoff isn’t resolved, the Badger could be grounded.

“It’s rooted deep in this community,” said Fay, 64, whose father, like those of his closest boyhood pals, was a ferry crewman. “The Badger is the last of its kind. I just hate the idea of losing it.”

The Badger, a stout vessel with a wide smokestack and an open-air bow is all that remains of a ferry fleet that hauled railcars across the lake for more than a century. Most of the boats met a sad ending in scrap yards by the late 1980s.

The 410-foot Badger survived when an entrepreneur refurbished it for leisure travel.

But it’s not always easy to keep one foot in the past while meeting modern standards.

Regulators four years ago gave Lake Michigan Carferry, which runs the Badger, until this December to change its ash disposal method or fuel type. The company reports it’s working on a switch to natural gas but needs more time to retrofit the craft, which launched in 1953.

Lake Michigan Carferry insists there’s little harm from the coal ash, which is mixed with water to form slurry and piped overboard. It says an EPA-certified lab found the material is hundreds of times below hazardous levels.

Tinka Hyde, water division chief with EPA’s Chicago regional office, said the agency has questions about the tests and will review the Badger’s application for an extension.

In Ludington, businesses say grounding the Badger would be devastating. A study by West Shore Community College near Ludington said the ferry pumps $35 million a year into the economy.

Motel owner David Bourgette figures he’d lose 25 percent of his customers without the Badger.

“I care about our lake. But the carferry isn’t doing that much damage,” he said. “If there was one dinosaur left, would we kill it off just because it wasn’t mixing in just right?”

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