National Geographic News
Photo of the SS Badger car ferry.

The coal-fueled S.S. Badger, shown above, has run afoul of environmentalists who object to its air emissions and dumping of coal ash into Lake Michigan.

Photograph by Sue Pischke, Herald-Time Reporter/AP

David LaGesse

for National Geographic

Published July 10, 2014

As it has almost every year for more than six decades, the venerable S.S. Badger is again ferrying passengers, cars, and cargo across Lake Michigan this summer. But it's a different ship now.

Passengers shouldn't notice the changes. The beloved horns sound the same, the staterooms remain comfortable enough for a nap during the four-hour crossing, the TV lounges and restaurants are open for business. The large steamship, which is the last coal-burner on the Great Lakes and in the United States, retains its throwback grandeur.

What's missing is some of the ship's pollution. The Badger is sailing this summer season with a $1.2 million, high-tech combustion-control system that reduces the amount of coal it needs for the crossing. It also cuts the accompanying toxic emissions—and, most important, the tons of coal ash the Badger has long dumped into Lake Michigan.

Changes planned for next year are even bigger. The Badger is set to stop dumping any ash in the lake's increasingly clean waters, thanks to systems that will retain the ash on board. It's another $1 million bet by the Badger's owners that they can keep the ship burning coal while staying out of environmentalists' crosshairs.

"We've been an easy target, that's all," says Bob Manglitz, president of Lake Michigan Carferry, the ship's operator. "We really got caught in a political fight."

But with critics contending that the ship is a source of unnecessary pollution that goes beyond the coal ash, that fight may not end anytime soon.

"Filthiest Ship on the Great Lakes"

Until the retention system is installed next winter, the Badger will continue ejecting tons of coal waste every day. The waste amounted in recent years to nearly four tons a day and more than 500 tons a sailing season. The Badger's backers have described the ash as little different from sand, but coal ash contains toxic substances including mercury, arsenic, and lead.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to regulate coal ash in 2010, and has promised to finalize action by the end of the year. (Related: "Largest U.S. Coal Ash Pond to Close, But Future Rules Still Undecided.")

And among the many YouTube videos that show the Badger blowing its horns, docking, and departing, one can also find a video of it spewing ash from its side and into Lake Michigan.

That very visible pollution earned the ship some outspoken opponents, including Dick Durbin, the U.S. Senate's second-ranking leader. The Illinois Democrat last year called the Badger "the filthiest ship on the Great Lakes" and aimed to shut it down, or at least stop its ash dumping. He was joined by a coalition of environmental groups that viewed the Badger as a blatant violation of the Clean Water Act.

"It is time that the Badger stop being allowed to violate the law, and stop polluting Lake Michigan," Howard Learner of the Environmental Law and Policy Center said recently.

The Badger and its defenders embraced the fight as an effort to preserve living history. Congressional Republicans backed a bill that would have shielded the ship from environmental regulations if it were nominated as a National Historic Landmark. The ship already has won a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, among other historic designations.

The legislation died in 2012 and the landmark nomination stalled amid the controversy. With the plan in place to further cut the Badger's pollution, the landmark designation effort was revived in May.

The ship has plenty of support from local residents. At more than 400 feet long, the Badger was built, along with other ferries of its time, by railroad companies that wanted a shortcut across the lake.

The ship launched in 1953 and carried railcars until that traffic dried up in the 1980s, when the Badger went bankrupt. An entrepreneur revived the ship in the 1990s as a summer ferry for passengers and cars.

Built to carry railcars year-round, the Badger is a heavy relic that can sail smoothly on rough waters while carrying as many as 600 passengers and nearly 200 vehicles.

That contrasts with a faster, diesel-powered competitor that also ferries passengers and vehicles. A catamaran, that newer boat doesn't handle the same in rough weather.

"We call that one the 'vomit comet,'" said Juanita Pierman, president of the village council in Pentwater, Michigan.

A summer tourist town, Pentwater depends on the Badger to bring tourists from Wisconsin. It also depends on having fish for those visitors to catch.

"Fishing is great these days because the lake's in wonderful shape," Pierman said. "They're worried about one ferry that runs for the summer months? Come on, let's get real."

A Compromise on Fuel

The fight over the Badger dates to 2008, when the EPA ordered thousands of vessels to obtain a permit for any type of discharge into bodies of water. The Badger got a five-year permit to continue ejecting coal ash, promising to come up with an alternative by the end of 2012.

Environmentalists say the Badger's operators appeared more intent on winning exemptions than on meeting its deadline. "It's puzzling," says the Environmental Law and Policy Center's Learner. "They had a chance to pursue cleaner fuels."

Manglitz said his company studied and rejected coal alternatives, including propane, diesel, and compressed natural gas. Propane is too dangerous for a vessel, he said, while diesel didn't seem immune from environmental concerns.

And the heavy Badger would have needed so much compressed natural gas that the tanks would have been unwieldy.

As the deadline approached, the Badger's owners announced that they wanted time to convert to liquefied natural gas, which Manglitz said would make it the greenest ship on the Great Lakes. The company won a $75,000 Wisconsin grant in 2012 to study the conversion.

But even Manglitz conceded that moving to the liquefied gas was a tricky bet. Suppliers won't build the expensive infrastructure needed to deliver the super-chilled fuel until they have guaranteed buyers, and operators can't make the engine conversions until they have a supply.

"It's a chicken-and-the-egg situation," Manglitz said.

Durbin and environmentalists called the proposal a stalling tactic. When the Badger's five-year permit expired at the end of the 2012 season, they demanded that the ship immediately stop spewing its coal ash into the lake.

EPA officials and the Badger's owners crafted another compromise that would allow the ship to continue operating in 2013 if it reduced its coal use in 2014 and quit dumping ash in 2015.

To reduce the Badger's fuel burning, workers spent the winter installing new digital combustion controls, including more than two miles of wire needed to link sensors, controls, switches, fans, and other new gear to the old steam engines and to panels in the ship's pilot house.

The first few weeks of operation suggested the Badger will meet a goal of reducing fuel consumption by 15 percent. "We'll be tweaking the controls for several months until we get everything working at its best," Manglitz said.

Workers adapted combustion controls from those in use at coal-fired power plants. There is no precedent, though, for an ash-retention system like the one that will be installed on the Badger this coming offseason.

Despite once saying that holding the hot ash was unfeasible, Manglitz said he's confident that the ship will now succeed at retaining the waste, which can be sold for industrial uses or transported to landfills. "But with anything like this, there are a few doubts in the back of your mind," he said. (Related: "Seeking a Safer Future for Electricity's Coal Ash Waste.")

With the new system in place, the Badger could continue operating indefinitely, probably always as a coal-burner. His company won't have the money to later make a fuel conversion, said Manglitz, who likes the coal-fired engines: "Having the old boilers is part of the whole thing."

That means the Badger, whose emissions contain their own toxins, will continue to irritate environmentalists. "No question, we would prefer that the Badger had moved to a cleaner fuel," said Josh Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which participated in the campaign to rein in the ship's pollution.

There's a reason the Badger is the last coal-fired ship in the country, he said. "There are simply better ways to move our boats today."

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

91 comments
Randy McClure
Randy McClure

This is all political drama! little Dick Durbin trying to use the EPA to shut down the Badger. It is capital cronyism at it's worst. The facts are that the owner of the other Lake Michigan ferry is a big donor to little Dick. The high speed one that on a rough day is called the vomit commit!  I'm disappointed in Nat Geo for not looking a little deeper at the story and just going with the ECO tyranny story. There are published facts about the actual "toxic" content of the ash. 


If little Dick were really concerned about coal, what has he done to shut down all of the power plants in Ill?  NOTHING! and take a look at the political contributions from the coal industry. Hmmmm. 


Can we all say Hypocrite!

Scott Ciloski
Scott Ciloski

These left wing tree, hugging morons, need to get a life and a real job.  People wounder why the cost of living keeps going up faster than the work force income.  We as a country wast more money on research for matters that we can't control, global warming for an example.   You guys think you are helping this country, but in fact all you are doing is destroying the very foundation of this nation; by removing biblical principals from everyday practices,  trying to rewrite history in our text books, and trying to destroy items from the past because they do not fit your agenda..


Don't get me wrong, in everything there should be some safety concerns and protections put in place. but to the point of were we are forcing companies out of business and destroying history what made this country the great nation it once was.


If we want this nation to be remain strong we need to start to slow down and save our history. Let our children see what made this nation what it once was. We need to go back to our roots and follow our path of what this nation was founded upon and not what every other country looks for us to do.  The S.S. Badger is part of this country's history lets not waste it.  


here is a link the some history infomation about the S.S. Badger http://www.ssbadger.com/about/history.html



Seth Bucholz
Seth Bucholz

I don't think it would change the historical value of the ship, significantly, if the engine were altered. Nonetheless, one coal ship can't be that detrimental to the great lakes, especially if the company is willing to retain the pollutants, till they hit port.


Hope they manage to keep this ship afloat; hate to see something of historical value scrapped. :(

Jay McGhee
Jay McGhee

Cry me a lake why don't you? I'd like to see the Badger continuing on so that my grandkids can see one working vessel much the same mechanically as it was when my grandfather saw it himself.

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

The worse thing about it is that the owners probably spent more money fighting then they would have spent just upgrading to oil back in the 90's. 


The owners also behaved like bratty children insisting on dumping ash near the coast for years just because they could.  And it was just about thumbing their noses, it did real property damage to valuable property much of which was owned by other wealthy conservatives which explains why they got a bipartisan beat down. 


Crowds Gather
Crowds Gather

This is another good example of environmentalists carrying their thing to an extreme. The 'Badger' is a target for ideological and political reasons more than anything else. It's relative contribution to Great Lakes pollution is vanishingly small.

Tedd Roberts
Tedd Roberts

Right on @Kenneth L, all these people probably support the incandescent light bulb, and the jobs that come with it's very low tech, out of date application.

KENNETH LANE
KENNETH LANE

Wow, wow, wow!  What a collection of Rightwing Stooges posting here today.  Must be a grand night in the church basement Right guys?!

Art Morgan
Art Morgan

What really upsets me about the whole environmental movement is that they will give exemptions to companies that have these windfarms that kill American Eagles, yet will scream about one coal burning ship. Just goes to show how stupid these people are. 

Eric Blom
Eric Blom

The left is a gigantic collective (sic) of hypocrites in that their's is a "Do as I say, not as I do" double standard that they would seek to enforce on others while exempting themselves. When in doubt, just look @ Al Gore's house. I'll just bet he doesn't drive a Prius...

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

The SS Badger IS a national treasure that should be protected as such. We have lost FOREVER so many thing from our heritage in the past that we should be trying to find way to protect the few we have left. Like the other person said, What about all those old Steam Trains that shuttle vacationers around and. The Working Museums that MUST use coal to keep them in working condition lest they freeze up and rust away. NASA just launched a new satellite that will be able to pin point Carbon Emissions. Those locations that are able to be tracked by Satellite are the FIRST and LARGEST polluters that will really make a difference. There are still people that use coal AT HOME! Are they going to start tracking down these people too. The owners are trying as best they can while not letting it sit and rot. There is a new Michigan Vacation Commercial spot narrated by Tim Allen that even mentions the SS Badger by name. The people love this old ship and it helps an entire town remain a tourist destination. Let's get behind them and support saving our beloved heritage sites and items. They won't last without us!!!

Steve Krueger
Steve Krueger

@Swiftright Right Talk about not showing sources...where is there one scrap of fact showing it did real property damage to any valuable property?  I'd like to see the list of bipartisan beat-down participants also.


Al Bigelow
Al Bigelow

@Swiftright Right  Oil fueled steam engines were banned for ships by the EPA in 2009. The Great Lakes shipping industry was given a waiver by the EPA to continue using them until 2020 which will probably be renewed. The fuel for oil burning steamships is Bunker C which is all the left overs after gasoline, kerosene, diesel, heating oil and other commercial products are products are distilled from crude oil. The science is all over the place whether or not Bunker C is more harmful for the environment and burning oil based fuels doesn't end discharges into the lake. Here is an example of an oil fired ship making the same discharge. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=667071196647190&set=a.660179474003029.1073741829.656695957684714&type=1&theater No environmental groups are opposing that oil soot getting into the lake.


As far a bi partisan beat down? With the exception of Durbin all the politicians against the SS Badger were Milwaukee and Muskegon area Democrats. It should be noted that those cities are home ports for the competing ferry Lake Express. In contrast the SS Badger was supported by both Democrats and Republicans. 


As far as property damage. The ship doesn't discharge ash any where near the shore so your claim is false.

Al Bigelow
Al Bigelow

@KENNETH LANE  I wouldn't generalize support for the SS Badger as being right wing. Democrat and Republican politicians came out in support of the ship.

Seamus Cameron
Seamus Cameron

@Art Morgan Yet, these same halfwits demanded the shut down of Hydroelectric because it, well, it killed Fish.

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

@Dwayne LaGrou Its a boat. Their were plenty of truly historic GL vessels that were scraped because they couldn't get funding for preservation. If it weren't for the Right vs Left coal fight this thing would be broken down for scrap already.


If you want to see a  historic coal steamer go visit the SS Columbia. If you want to support a real historic vessel go join or donate to the preservation of the SS Norisle

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

@Al Bigelow @Swiftright Right Not sure what a ban in 2009 has to do with the proposal to convert the ship back in 1991-2.

Are you even from the great lakes region?


And its not a ban on oil, its a ban on fuel oil 6# And most (especially ironically) old ships can run on #4-6. because they had to be able to use what ever was available. 


And nice pic. Im guessing you don't know what's going on their so let me explain. The St Marys Challenger is blowing its boiler. 99% of what you see in that pic is steam, the rest is tiny bits of residual, mostly minerals and bits of fine sand that have built up in its boiler lines. Virtually all the material left over from burning oil goes up the stack as soot. Some residue is left on the burners but its not much.


And yes the Badger was dumping ash near the shore on several occasions. It was exempt from regulations until 2012 so the 5 mile 150ft of water laws did not apply



Steve Krueger
Steve Krueger

@Swiftright Right Wow...the ship, by law, can only dump when it reaches 5 miles off shore.  Better go back and start educating yourself for crying out loud.  You have made some of the most uninformed comments about the subject in this forum.

Al Bigelow
Al Bigelow

@Swiftright Right It doesn't empty its ash any where near your property? Irwin PA is not even on the Great Lakes much less Lake Michigan. Buy a map before trolling nonsense. 

KENNETH LANE
KENNETH LANE

@Al Bigelow @KENNETH LANE Support of the SS Bager???????---guess we read different posts--I read slams of the EPA and such-nothing about preserving the ship.  The dumping of the ash alone makes the coal operation a dumb idea.  Other ways to keep the ship afloat if there is demand.  Looks like a commercial freighter so I am lost as to it's historical nature appeal.

Randy McClure
Randy McClure

@Seamus Cameron @Art Morgan Here in Traverse City, we have taken out 2 power dams, Eliminated Renewable Energy so we can have natural rivers. I wish they (ECO terrorists) would make up their minds.

Al Bigelow
Al Bigelow

@Swiftright Right The best thing for preservation of historic vessels is to keep them operating. The Columbia and Norisle don't run any more and are both in very bad condition. By the way, both burned coal in their day. Also the Norisle is in Canada not the US.


Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

Have you ever actually been on the ship Ted ? I truly doubt it, whereas I have and it is FAR from being a rust bucket as you call it. I guess I just have a greater appreciation of Rare Antiques and a deep admiration of our Great Lakes Historical Heritage. A person doesn't have to be "Right or Left" wing to have a respect for something that means so much to so many people for many different reasons. I would be willing to bet if you actually got a chance to see the Grandeur of one of it's state rooms you may have a different opinion of her. The SS Badger will be with us for a long, LONG time, After all it IS a National Treasure!!!

Al Bigelow
Al Bigelow

@Tedd Roberts It is a National Treasure already and it has already obtained several other historic designations. I think someone is upset that the environmental argument against the ship failed and was proven bogus.

Al Bigelow
Al Bigelow

@Swiftright Right Yes I am from the Great Lakes region and know the area where the ships ports are very well. Its obvious from your posts you didn't buy a map before you started posting.


There was no conversion plan in 1991 through 1992. In 1991 the previous owner of the ship was in bankruptcy and in 1992 new owners acquired the ship and restarted the service.


The 2009 ban on bunker oil for fuel is entirely relevant. Oil conversion would have been the easiest. AND YES bunker oils are banned with the exception of the 14 steamships that got a waiver until 2020. Which eliminated that conversion option for the Badger. If the Bunker C oil burning steamships do not get a renewal in 2020 than their engines have to be replaced to those that burn low sulfur diesel or cease operation.


Yes I do understand what is going in that picture. You stated: 


"And nice pic. Im guessing you don't know what's going on their so let me explain. The St Marys Challenger is blowing its boiler. 99% of what you see in that pic is steam, the rest is tiny bits of residual, mostly minerals and bits of fine sand that have built up in its boiler lines. Virtually all the material left over from burning oil goes up the stack as soot. Some residue is left on the burners but its not much."


Your quote describes the process of how the SS Badger and for that matter the St. Mary's Challenger discharge the ash. The difference is one ship burns coal and the other burns Bunker C. Personally I would like to see test results on the Bunker C discharge. While there may be more material discharged from coal burning, the discharge from oil burning may be more harmful to the lake.

Steve Krueger
Steve Krueger

@Swiftright Right Bull, the ship was never exempt from the five mile regulation.  Please refer to any documentation that even states that or anything that documents dumping near shore happened on several occasions.  You do understand they were operating under a permit agreement with the EPA which did not exempt them from the required five mile distance?

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

@Steve Krueger @Swiftright Right By law? the ship was exempt from those laws until 2012 and even those laws have enough loops holes to sail a ship through

Al Bigelow
Al Bigelow

@KENNETH LANE Apparently you have never been on the ship or know anything about its history. It was constructed as a railroad, passenger and auto ferry and its the last of its type in operation.


The EPA deserves to be slammed in this case along with the environmentalists like the Sierra Club that are making an issue of this. Keep in mind, a permit to give more time so fueling infrastructure could be built so the ship could convert to clean burning Natural Gas fuel was blocked by Durbin, and the environmental movement. The ash discharge had been tested many times over and long before this was made an issue by a phony environmental smear campaign which has been tied to its competitor in a recent article by Outer Boundary Magazine. Every one of those tests were found to not only to be not harmful to the environment but within acceptable EPA tolerances. (Yes they have tolerances for these sorts of things) Its chemical consistency was found to be the same as sand and if you have ever been to that part of Michigan its very sandy there. So its not even putting anything different than what already exists in that environment. Meanwhile, other steam powered ships using Bunker C oil fuel are making similar discharges and no tests are being asked for, no deadlines, no bureaucratic hoops. And where is the outrage and troll campaigns by the environmentalists attacking coal when Bunker C may be much more harmful. BTW, Bunker C is the left overs from Crude Oil after everything else of commercial value has been distilled out of it.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

Thank You Al, I couldn't have said it any better. I truly don't understand what is so difficult to understand. They are just trying to balance on a razors edge between running the ship with grace and dignity and running the ship in an environmentally prudent way. After all, like the other guy even said, There are very few of these old treasures left to save!?

Steve Krueger
Steve Krueger

You have no clue what you're saying...you're lips are a flapp'in pretty fast though.  If you have never been to Ludington I suggest taking a tour on Google Earth.  In order for the ship to "dump" ash within 1/2 mile of shore and destroy property it would have to be dumping directly into the harbor (the harbor by the way is well over one mile in length from the break wall to the dock.).  Second, you haven't (nor does there even exist) any type of documentation to even back up your claim.  This law is not just set by the EPA but also the Coast Guard...and not once in any of this ridiculous battle did the EPA, Coast Guard, Dick Durbin, or environmental groups ever come forward making such a claim.

Al Bigelow
Al Bigelow

@Swiftright Right What does owning a vacation home have to do with anything. Its obvious you don't have one there because you can't even describe the area accurately.

Al Bigelow
Al Bigelow

@OuterBoundary FactCheck The Abegweit doesn't sail and is part of a yacht club. When they get sick of it, they will scrap it or sink it in the harbor like they did the Pere Marquette 4 in 1936.

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