After winning exemptions from environmental laws for more than a decade, owners of the last coal-powered steamship on the Great Lakes agreed Friday to a court-enforced deadline to stop dumping toxic pollution into Lake Michigan.
But the proposed legal settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would grant the Badger car ferry another reprieve. The ship's owners would be allowed to continue discharging coal ash into the lake through the end of 2014 — two years longer than a deadline they had promised to meet under an earlier deal with the EPA.
The compromise drew an angry response from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who said people "should be outraged that this filthy ship will continue to operate." A Michigan environmental group, meanwhile, said the Badger's owners should be required to pay a nonrefundable deposit to ensure they follow through on cleaning up the aging coal burner.
Federal officials said the new deal, filed in U.S. District Court in Michigan, eliminates the possibility of lengthy permit appeals that could have allowed the Badger to keep polluting. Each time it sails, the ferry dumps about 4 tons of coal ash into the lake — waste concentrated with arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxic metals.
"What is important here is we have a deadline for them to stop discharging coal ash into the lake, and it is judicially enforceable," said Susan Hedman, the EPA's regional administrator.
In their application last year for a new Clean Water Act permit, the Badger's owners sought five more years to fix the ship's pollution problems. If the legal settlement is approved after a 30-day comment period, they would be legally obligated to install equipment that stores the ash onboard in time for the 2015 sailing season.
While the owners have repeatedly promised to clean up the Badger, they also lobbied lawmakers and Obama administration officials in Washington for a permanent exemption from EPA oversight and sought to protect the ship as a National Historic Landmark. If those efforts had been successful, the Eisenhower-era ship could have polluted the lake indefinitely.
"The resolution of this issue has taken far longer than we had hoped, but the end result has been worth the effort," Bob Manglitz, president and CEO of Lake Michigan Carferry Service, said in a statement posted on the Badger's website. "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."
Under the legal deal, the Badger's owners agreed to a complex formula that requires them to reduce the ferry's coal ash discharges during the 2013 and 2014 sailing seasons. They also will pay a $25,000 fine for violating mercury water quality standards in 2012.
Built in 1953 to carry railroad cars, the Badger started plying Lake Michigan when dozens of other coal-burning ships were being either retired or converted to cleaner diesel fuel. Supporters promote the car ferry as a nostalgic vacation shortcut and an important part of the tourist economy in its port cities of Manitowoc, Wis., and Ludington, Mich.
After the Badger's owners negotiated a 2008 deal with the EPA, the ship continued to dump about 509 tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan during each spring-to-fall season. That amount far exceeds the 89 tons of coal, limestone and iron waste that all other Great Lakes freighters combined discharge into the lake annually, according to federal records.
Investors who saved the Badger from the scrap yard in the 1980s won special exemptions from Michigan and Wisconsin air quality laws that kept the ferry's thick black coal smoke legal. The current owners later rejected state aid to convert the Badger to diesel, telling the Ludington Daily News in 2001 that they wanted to run the business "without governmental assistance."
Durbin, the assistant Senate majority leader, stepped in in 2011 after the Tribune reported that three Republican congressmen, Bill Huizenga and Dan Benishek of Michigan and Tom Petri of Wisconsin, had slipped language into the Coast Guard budget to protect the Badger.
The House later stripped out the amendment, which would have prevented the EPA from limiting pollution from any ship that was "on, or nominated for inclusion on," the list of national landmarks — language that applied only to the Badger.
Other critics of the coal burner want tougher language in the proposed legal settlement and a tighter deadline for the ship's owners to meet.
"We acknowledge the historical and economic significance of the Badger," said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. "However, they were given an exemption in 2008 and failed to meet their deadline for stopping the toxic ash dumping. There is little in the proposed agreement that would ensure they meet this new deadline."
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