The U.S. Coast Guard reauthorization bill would allow the nearly 60-year-old SS Badger to remain in business as long as it floats. The ferry faces a Dec. 19 deadline for renewal of its federal permit or an investment to end the ash dumping.
The version of the Coast Guard bill in the U.S. House would require the federal Environmental Protection Agency to green light any coal-fired vessel that is a National Historic Landmark.
"It just happens to be the only one in existence," said Brian Patrick, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich. Both Huizenga and U.S. Rep. Tom Petri of Wisconsin support the bill.
The ferry transports cars and passengers between Ludington and Manitowoc, Wis., and is the last coal-burning steamship on the Great Lakes.
The Badger, run by Lake Michigan Carferry, has been criticized by environmentalists but defended by nautical history buffs and those who see the ship as a boon to the economies of the two cities it serves.
One of the ferry's critics is Aaron Schultz, a spokesman for the Badger's Milwaukee-based competitor, Lake Express ferry. He said the Badger was given four years to become compliant by either coming up with a way to retain the ash or to burn a cleaner fuel such as diesel.
"It's a permanent exemption for coal ash, and we don't believe it's good policy," Schultz said of the special provision.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said it was unfair to have different rules for the two vessels.
"Congress should not exempt the SS Badger, nor should it allow that boat to continue dumping thousands of tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan," he said in a statement.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., agrees, and is blocking the Petri-Huizenga provision as the final details of the bill are being negotiated between the House and Senate.
Lake Michigan Carferry issued a statement Friday, saying it would not comment on the pending legislation, but expressed confidence it will be in business again next year.