nostalgia for coal ash

For those of us who like to think back on “the good old days”, try a ferry ride on the last coal-powered steamship on the Great Lakes, on Lake Michigan between Ludington, Michigan and Manitowoc, Wisconsin.  The ship has been granted a reprieve from standard environmental laws that allows it to burn coal and dump its coal ash in the lake as it goes along.  That’s “only” 4 tons per trip, or 509 tons annually, and just like the good old days, the ash is laced with arsenic, lead, mercury, and other heavy metals.  If you’ve been feeling far too removed from pollution, and would like to recall the US before environmental regulations stifled small businesses like this one, the S.S. Badger is the ship to take.

It seems that four years ago, the ship’s owners promised EPA to upgrade their ship’s propulsion system to diesel.  The ship already had an exemption to state air quality standards to allow its black exhaust in the air, and the owners had previously rejected an offer for state funding to convert to diesel in 2001, claiming that they wanted to operate “without governmental assistance”.  But the EPA deadline is quickly approaching, with no update in sight.  Now that they didn’t get $14 million in stimulus funding to make the same upgrade, they’ve shifted to subverting EPA’s enforcement; they’ve spent $290,000 on federal lobbyists since 2008, according to records compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

Though the latest round of supplications to EPA insists that they’ll store the ash onboard by 2017 and convert to liquified natural gas in the more distant future, the owners are really trying to register the S.S. Badger as a National Historic Landmark out of EPA’s reach.  The application says that the ship’s “historical propulsion system” is “under threat” by the EPA.  It does not mention that this one ship’s 509 tons of ash far exceed the 89 tons of coal, limestone, and iron waste that all other Great Lakes freighters discharge to the lake annually.  Combined.

Political support for the “historical” ship is mixed, with just enough power in the opposition (notably, Sen. Dick Durbin, the assistant Senate majority leader) to keep the ferry from being written into loopholes of budgets for federal agencies.  To me, this is an example of a company trying to act above the law.  Its responses to EPA are disingenuous and incompatible with the National Historic Landmark application.  Is anyone out there nostalgic for the days when our cities were covered in dark soot clouds from coal-fired industry without any environmental regulation?  I find the argument for preservation of a historic coal boiler specious — this is about being cheap and staying above the law, plain and simple.  I hope EPA throws the book at them.

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