Even if the Badger fails to make the list of the nation's historic and cultural treasures, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may be unable to force the aging coal burner to eliminate the nearly 4 tons of waste it dumps in the lake every time it sails. An amendment added to a budget bill by Republican congressmen from Michigan and Wisconsin would prevent the EPA from imposing more stringent pollution limits on any ship that is "on, or nominated for inclusion on" the list of landmarks.
"This designation could play a critical role in the survival of this one-of-a-kind historical asset," Bob Manglitz, president and chief executive of the Lake Michigan Car Ferry Service, the Badger's owner, wrote in a letter to the Park Service. Landmark status, Manglitz wrote, would be "invaluable" during negotiations with the EPA about a new Clean Water Act permit for the ship.
In their application for landmark status, the Badger's owners say the ship's "historic propulsion system" is "under threat" by the EPA.
It describes the Badger as "the final stage of development of the Great Lakes rail and auto passenger ferry," making it worthy for protection as an example of once-innovative technology to move goods across the nation. Its massive coal-fired boilers were the last of their kind built for U.S. ships, according to documents filed with the Park Service.
Converting the ship from coal to oil "would destroy part of the historic coal-delivery system and significantly increase operating costs," the application states. Adding diesel engines would leave "the historic machinery intact but unused."
Most existing maritime national historic landmarks are museum exhibits, including the Cobia, a World War II submarine docked in Manitowoc, Wis.; the Potomac, a yacht used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt; and the Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered submarine.
The Park Service already has cleared the ferry for consideration by a federal advisory panel that meets Tuesday in Washington. The panel is reviewing about a dozen other properties, including a 19th century Boston church, a Native American village in Iowa and a disabled veterans home in Ohio.
If the advisory committee approves the Badger's nomination, it will be sent to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for a final decision.
Company officials did not return calls or emails from the Tribune. Backers of the Badger have organized a public relations campaign that portrays the ship as a nostalgic vacation shortcut across Lake Michigan and cites the ferry's role in promoting tourism and its 250 full-time and seasonal jobs, most of which are held by high school and college students.
The Badger's coal-burning technology was becoming obsolete when the 410-foot ferry began operating on Lake Michigan. By the time it started carrying freight cars for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in 1953, dozens of other coal-burning ships were being retired or converted to cleaner-burning diesel fuel. Consolidation of railroads and skyrocketing operating costs forced other Great Lakes ferries to shut down during the 1970s.
Based on its 134-day operating schedule, the ship discharges about 509 tons of coal ash each year as it travels between Manitowoc and Ludington, Mich. By contrast, all 125 freighters plying the Great Lakes collectively dump about 89 tons of coal, limestone and iron waste into the lake annually, according to U.S. Coast Guard records.
Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxic metals. The pollutant drew national attention in 2008 after a coal ash holding pond ruptured at a Kingston, Tenn., power plant and fouled an Ohio River tributary. On Oct. 31, a bluff collapsed next to another power plant south of Milwaukee and sent a torrent of mud and coal ash into Lake Michigan.
The EPA has been mulling more stringent rules to ensure safe disposal of coal ash, which the agency says poses "significant public health concerns." The Republican-controlled U.S. House recently voted to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate the toxic waste, but the measure likely will not clear the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate.
On Friday, Republican Reps. Bill Huizenga and Dan Benishek, of Michigan, and Tom Petri, of Wisconsin, added an amendment to the U.S. Coast Guard budget that would shield the Badger from EPA scrutiny. It doesn't mention the ferry by name, but the Badger is the only vessel that fits the criteria outlined in the measure pending on the House floor.
"This is a stunning example of special interest legislation flying under the radar," said Thomas Cmar, an attorney in the Midwest office of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Exempting the Badger by law or designating it as a national landmark could be its latest pass from environmental laws that other ships, including a competing car ferry that runs between Milwaukee and Muskegon, Mich., have complied with for years.
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 noxious coal smoke legal while other polluters cleaned up. A permit issued by the EPA in 2008 gave its current owners four years to clean up the ship's water pollution, by overhauling its engines or storing its coal ash for safe disposal onshore.
After vowing to find a solution, the owners have been seeking an exemption from the Clean Water Act that would delay a fix until at least 2017.
The move to secure landmark status comes less than a year after the Badger's owners unsuccessfully sought a $14 million federal stimulus grant to convert the ferry to diesel. More recently, they have urged the EPA to give them more time to study whether the ship can be fueled by natural gas, a switch the Badger's owners and backers say would make it the "greenest" commercial vessel on the Great Lakes.
Such a project appears to be far from reality. During the summer, brochures handed out on board the Badger and at community festivals proclaimed that DTE Energy, a Michigan utility, had approached the ferry's owners about overhauling the ship.
"They were quick to announce our participation," said John Austerberry, a DTE spokesman. "But we are not in any kind of agreement with the Badger and are not involved in any project with them."