TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — A federal deadline passed Wednesday for the S.S. Badger ferryboat to stop dumping waste coal ash into Lake Michigan, and prospects were murky for the historic vessel that boosts the economy and civic pride in port towns in Michigan and Wisconsin.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 gave owners of the Badger — the nation's last working coal-fired steamship — a four-year grace period to change its ash disposal method or fuel type. The company says it's looking for alternatives but needs more time and is seeking a new permit. Without authorization to discharge the ash, the ship can't operate.
EPA said it expects to make a tentative decision on Lake Michigan Carferry's application by March 1, then will issue a final ruling after taking public comment. The agency left unclear whether it will act in time to avoid disrupting the ferry's schedule. It normally operates from May to October, voyaging between Ludington, Mich., and Manitowoc, Wis.
"The Badger will be running in 2013," the company said in a statement. "We continue to work with EPA so that it can issue the draft permit as soon as possible."
The company said that under EPA regulations, its permit is automatically extended until the agency rules on the application for a replacement. An EPA statement did not say whether that is correct, and officials did not respond to phone and email messages about the matter from The Associated Press.
Launched in 1953, the Badger is the only active survivor from a ferry fleet that hauled railcars across the lake for more than a century. Most were sold for scrap by the late 1980s, but the Badger was refurbished for leisure travel. The 410-foot vessel features dining areas, a movie lounge and many original features.
The ferry discharges more than 500 tons of coal ash during a typical season, mixing it with water to form slurry that's piped overboard. Operators say it causes little if any harm, contending the material is far below hazardous levels. But EPA says coal ash has low concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury and the discharges are not allowed under the Clean Water Act.
EPA said it had received over 6,000 calls and letters about the Badger.
Environmentalists and a competing ferry company in Muskegon are among those saying EPA should stand its ground, while Badger boosters in Ludington and Manitowoc are pleading for the Badger's life.
U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Republican whose district includes Ludington, sponsored legislation that would have given the Badger a permanent extension, but it failed.
"The Badger not only has a significant economic impact on Ludington through job creation and tourism, it also has a considerable economic impact on the state of Michigan as a whole," Huizenga said Wednesday. "I look forward to the EPA approving the Badger's permit and expect to see the Badger sailing in 2013."
A team of university researchers is studying how to convert the Badger to run on natural gas — a complex process that would require retooling the craft and developing infrastructure for refueling it.