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Full Metal Junket

By PAM BERNS
I was born in Sturgeon Bay, WI, a city named after the prehistoric fish that can grow as large as a car. The city is well-known for its shipbuilding; ships and ferries were a big part of our culture. We made frequent trips on the ferry from the Door Country Peninsula to Washington Island where Scandinavian immigrants originally settled and raised potatoes, cherries and sheep. Going farther south, we also loved the carferry that carried automobiles and passengers between Manitowoc, WI and Ludington, MI. 
   
The S.S. Badger was built in Sturgeon Bay in 1952 and 1953 as a rail car ferry. Today, this vessel is the only coal-powered steamship on the Great Lakes that services the route between Manitowoc, WI  and Ludington, MI. The owners of the steamship have won repeated permissions from the Environmental Protection Agency to continue using coal to fuel its ferry. But there is a big problem with using coal. The 410-foot ferry dumps about four tons of carcinogenic coal ash mixed with water into Lake Michigan every time it crosses the lake, which is, at high season, daily from May to October. All that adds up to 509 tons of mercury, cadmium, lead, arsenic and other toxic metals into Lake Michigan each operating season. All of this impacts people living in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana.  
   
In Illinois, Sen. Dick Durbin has been at the forefront of those who have been the most vocal about protecting the lake. He went on record saying, “The S.S. Badger, the filthiest ship on the Great Lakes, has been given two more years to dump hundreds of tons of dangerous coal ash into Lake Michigan. The millions of people who live, work and play in and around this beautiful lake should be outraged that this filthy ship will continue to operate.”
   
The Detroit Free Press writes that the total waste dumped falls below the levels of coal ash that require regulatory action. Apparently, we should feel relieved that we can drink and play in this toxic slush without worrying about being poisoned by the metals. 
   
Lake Michigan is the sixth largest freshwater lake in the world. As fresh water dries up all over the nation due to global warming and the poisoning of aquifers, Lake Michigan water is going to be in demand. Approximately 8.5 million people receive their drinking water from the lake now. 
  
According to Environmental Evidence, there are few technologies that are effective in cleaning up arsenic—the odorless and colorless carcinogen—in the water. Scientist Dr. Mark Pearson said that “Combining the qualitative results, it became clear that a major problem was the reluctance of the user. Many people in affected regions, even if aware of the problems with arsenic, believe that they will not be affected or find the technologies too difficult to use and maintain.” 
   
In drinking water, combining chemicals can double cancer risks. The Prostate recently reported that combining estrogen (or BPA) and arsenic at “safe” levels can combine and foster prostate cancer.
     
In Michigan, politicians made it possible for the ship to keep dumping the chemicals for another 2 years. Michigan Rep. Bill Huizenga (R), who represents Ludington, sponsored an amendment to have the ferry given a permanent exemption to cleaning up their act.
     
According to the Chesterton Tribune, the ferry service has until the end of 2014 to phase out and eventually quit mixing and dumping the toxic soup. With repeated delays granted by the EPA to investigate other means of fueling the ferry, such as liquified natural gas, or storing the ash aboard until it can be unloaded on land, the regulators—including the EPA—and the company struck a deal to quit dumping and pay a $25,000 civil penalty for exceeding the mercury levels that they dumped into the lake in the past year. 
    
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,  the State Division of Energy Services gave a grant to Lake Michigan Carferry in 2011 to explore the use of other fuels. Despite having repeated extentions from the EPA, the ferry’s owners claimed they needed another two years to come up with a design for a “sophisticated ash retention system” so it can bring the ash to shore, to dump it there and recycle the waste. 
   
Meanwhile, in June, according to energybiz, a bill was passed by a congressional House panel which would give states control over the regulation of coal ash. But it is assumed that the Senate will not pass a bill that doesn’t give the EPA a voice over the state regulations, which could change coal ash from being labeled a “solid waste” to “hazardous waste.”  That means that most coal ash waste may not be recyclable—40 percent of it today ends up in drywall and cements. The EPA would like to see byproducts converted from “wet ash” to “dry ash” and buried in secured liners.
 
According to the Chesterton Tribune, Sierra Club program director Melissa Damaschke, asked, “Why wait two years to do the right thing when we can start today? It’s far past time for the S.S. Badger to begin to utilize cleaner alternatives for healthier residents and a cleaner environment.” 
   
Many residents of Ludington, MI, population 8,000, say that more than 200 jobs depend on the ferry for generating tourist dollars in the charming galleries, bed and breakfasts, great beaches, restaurants, and motels in the area. More than $21 million of business is generated by the ferry business in Ludington and $14 million is generated by the S.S. Badger in Manitowoc. Since 1953, the Badger has been bringing up to 600 people and 180 vehicles back and forth from Ludington and Manitowoc every day. In the high tourist season, the ferry goes twice a day, doubling the dumping.
    
According to the Chicago Tribune, the investors who rescued the ferry from the scrap-yard in the 1980’s were awarded special exemptions from Wisconsin’s and Michigan’s air quality laws to avoid penalizing the ferry’s thick black coal smoke that pollutes the air as well as Lake Michigan water. Despite efforts by three Republican congressmen to exempt the company from pollution law, and other efforts seeking designation as a historic landmark, Sen. Durbin stepped in. At the end of the day, the S.S. Badger agreed to phase out the dumping before the 2015 season. 
   
According to the New York Times, retaining the ash and holding it to dispose of on land would cost approximately $750,000 a year. The dilly-dallying with toxic metals, soot and the health of our citizens has been atrocious. Surely, passengers and vehicles can absorb these costs. If they can’t, the ferry company has to substitute other fuels.
   
This exposure of carcinogenic heavy metals will be alleviated in 2014. We have waited patiently. Just because we can’t see or smell the toxic metals, it doesn’t mean that they’re not affecting our health.

Published: September 03, 2013
Issue: Fall 2013 Issue