At more than 400 feet long and 6600 gross tons the SS Badger is difficult to ignore. The tall plume of black coal smoke reveals its position before it crosses the horizon line of Lake Michigan. It is the last coal fired steamship operating in the United States.
This is a somewhat local ship for me with many stories told over the years about the "Carferry". It was originally built as a ferry for rail cars and served in this capacity on the Great Lakes until the need for a Chicago detour prompted the company to refit the ship. It started carrying mostly passenger cars and some freight trucks. Tourists made the 90 mile journey between Michigan and Wisconsin and it became a family tradition for many locals and distant visitors.
For more than a decade the ship has received waivers to dump tons of coal ash into the lake each year. Most of the ash is dumped in slurry via an underwater snorkel so it does not appear to pollute. The US EPA regulates coal ash dumping in other circumstances but exceptions continue to be made for the Badger every year.Last year we thought it was the end of the line for this museum piece. A high speed ferry an hour to the south anticipated additional business. The only option was to re-power, and the choice was natural gas. There were financial incentives involved but the owners who operate this single vessel could not re-power, lose most of an already short season, and still remain financially viable. Working on the ship is still a privilege for college students so the labor is inexpensive, but this is a small company with concentrated holdings.
Two congressmen have buried what the New York Times is calling an earmark in a Coast Guard re-authorization bill. The bill will likely pass and the Badger, which is not specifically named, will be allowed to dump 500 tons of coal ash into the drinking water source for millions of people. Some have referred to the ash as being like sand, these inert claims are disputed and additional mercury in the environment is a concern after decades of mercury clean up from coal burning power plants.
It's a difficult situation; about 700 jobs on board and on land depend on the ferry service. There's a thirty five million dollar impact for the two state's businesses. It a operating piece of the past and a national historic landmark. Where else can you ride a vintage steamship with your car?
Aside from the 500 tons of raw coal ash each year, which would cost nearly three quarters of a million dollars to hold and dispose of on land. The truly bizarre public assumptions about shipping in an area with a strong shipbuilding tradition that has continued for more than one hundred years is troubling.
Suggestions to convert the ferry to a pure electric plug-in might have been a joke but it was difficult to disentangle the sarcastic from the seriously uninformed. There was plan at one point to convert the ferry to diesel but the 14 million dollar price tag was considered too expensive.
Fourteen million is really not a bad price, but they are writing the check. Even with the earmark deal there is no payment to the shipowners. A prior deal for a burner conversion to natural gas and the diesel conversion would have both spent taxpayer dollars.
So we have a population with a direct interest in the outcome of a project for financial and cultural reasons. The same people do not understand maritime business even in this simple and small situation. The scale of rebuilding the country's ships and shipping infrastructure is a tremendously huge project. The costs are trillions of dollars. How are we to fix this aging but essential system on a national and global scale if we cannot re-power one beloved old ship?