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House eliminates amendment that would have allowed steamship to keep polluting Lake Michigan

Published: Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 9:32 a.m. CST

(MCT) — CHICAGO—Congress on Wednesday dumped special legislation that would have allowed the last coal-powered steamship on the Great Lakes to keep polluting Lake Michigan.

Under pressure from Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and assistant majority leader, the House stripped out an amendment to the U.S. Coast Guard budget that would have prevented the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from forcing the Badger car ferry to clean up its murky discharges. The House then sent the budget bill to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Durbin stepped in last year after The Chicago 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 that would have allowed the Eisenhower-era ship to pollute the lake indefinitely.

Each year, the aging ferry dumps about 509 tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan — waste concentrated with arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxic metals. During its spring-to-fall season, federal records show, the amount of coal ash pumped into the water far exceeds the 89 tons of coal, limestone and iron waste that all Great Lakes freighters combined discharge into the lake annually.

Built in 1953 to carry railroad cars, the Badger is billed today as a nostalgic vacation shortcut. Supporters have organized a public relations campaign that promotes the car ferry as an important part of the tourist economy in its port cities of Manitowoc, Wis., and Ludington, Mich. The company employs 250 people, all but 25 of whom are students working summer jobs, according to federal records.

Under a 2008 agreement with the EPA, the car ferry’s owners promised to clean up the ship by 2012. But in documents filed during the summer, they asked for five more years to fix the Badger’s pollution problems.

Meanwhile, the owners are lobbying the National Park Service to name the Badger a National Historic Landmark, a designation they have said would be “invaluable” during negotiations with the EPA for a new Clean Water Act permit.

The amendment sponsored by the three Republican congressmen would have protected the Badger regardless of the Park Service’s decision. It would have blocked 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.

By the time the ferry started plying Lake Michigan in the early 1950s, dozens of other coal-burning ships already were being retired or converted to cleaner-burning diesel fuel. 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.

Without a new water permit, the car ferry won’t be able to sail in the spring. Officials in the EPA’s Chicago office have declined to comment until a draft is released for public review. Efforts to reach the Badger’s owners for comment were unsuccessful.

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