Lake Michigan Carferry, which operates the SS Badger, said it had reached an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under which the company would design a system to retain its coal ash on board during trips across the lake and dispose of it on land. The company said it would abandon research aimed at switching from coal to liquefied natural gas as a fuel source.
The EPA said the Badger would reduce its discharges over the next two years, with all ash dumping into the lake ending after the 2014 sailing season. The company also would pay a $25,000 civil penalty for exceeding mercury pollution standards last year.
The terms were reached in a consent decree filed with the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids. After a 30-day public comment period, a judge will decide whether to approve it.
The deal would end a lengthy dispute between regulators and Lake Michigan Carferry over its practice of discharging waste ash overboard. The 410-foot, 60-year-old vessel hauls vehicles and passengers across the lake between its home port of Ludington and Manitowoc, Wis., between May and October.
The EPA in 2008 gave the company four years to stop dumping ash, a grace period that ended in December 2012. The company had applied for a permit to continue the practice while developing an alternative fuel system. But the two sides decided instead to negotiate the consent deal, which would be court-enforced.
"This consent decree offers the fastest and most certain path available to EPA to stop the discharge of coal ash from the Badger into Lake Michigan," said Susan Hedman, EPA regional administrator. "The enforcement agreement reduces the discharge of coal ash more quickly and with greater oversight than would occur during the appeal of a decision to issue or deny a permit — a process that often takes several years."
Bob Manglitz, president and CEO of Lake Michigan Carferry, said the agreement would keep the Badger afloat and save the jobs of more than 200 employees.
"The resolution of this issue has taken far longer than we had hoped, but the end result has been worth the effort," he said.
If the coal ash issue were not resolved, the Badger eventually could be grounded. Supporters have lobbied the EPA and members of Congress to save the historic vessel, a cultural icon and pillar of the tourist industry in the Ludington area.
Critics urged the government to force the Badger to abide by federal clean water standards.
"We're disappointed the SS Badger will still be dumping coal ash into Lake Michigan for the next two years, but appreciate that the United States has gone to court to end this archaic practice," said Susan Campbell, spokeswoman for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a Chicago-based advocacy group.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker praised the agreement.
"My goal was for the S.S. Badger to continue sailing, while offering our beautiful Lake Michigan better protection, and today's announcement proves a winning solution all around," he said.
U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, also praised the deal that keeps the ferry sailing for at least the next few years.
"The Badger is not merely a piece of living history, it is a very active and very vital part of Michigan's economy, and remains a major source of job creation and economic growth for both Ludington and Manitowac on the other side of Lake Michigan," the congressman said. "It contributes $35 million to the local economies annually, increases tourism, and provides a major boost for small businesses along the Lakeshore. Too often local businesses are forced to close their doors due to Washington's heavy-handed regulatory bureaucracy. I applaud Lake Michigan Carferry for successfully navigating the bureaucratic fog and overcoming the unprecedented regulatory hurdles placed before them."