TRAVERSE CITY (AP) - The U.S. Senate's second-ranking Democrat said Thursday he would fight a Michigan ferryboat company's plan to continue dumping coal ash into Lake Michigan while researching a new method of powering the vessel.
Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois described as "far-fetched" a proposal by Lake Michigan Carferry Service to convert the S.S. Badger, the nation's last working coal-powered steamship, to liquefied natural gas. The 410-foot Badger hauls about 100,000 passengers and 30,000 vehicles a year between Ludington and Manitowoc, Wis., operating from mid-May and mid-October.
It discharges more than 500 tons of waste ash from its coal boilers during a typical season. Coal ash contains trace amounts of heavy metals including arsenic, lead and mercury.
"It is the height or irony that your carferry operation is threatening the future of the very lake you depend on for your livelihood," Durbin said in a letter to Robert Manglitz, president of Lake Michigan Carferry Service.
The company says there's little if any harm from the ash, which is mixed with water to form slurry and piped overboard.
The Environmental Protection Ageny in 2008 gave the company until this December to find another way to dispose of the ash or change to a different fuel. The company is applying for a permit that would extend the deadline while it looks into switching to natural gas.
"Because of your continued, long-term refusal to clean up your dangerous operations, I will actively oppose your new permit application," Durbin's letter said.
Pat McCarthy, vice president for shore operations, said the company will submit its paperwork to EPA ahead of a June 29 deadline.
"We're surprised that Sen. Durbin would oppose an application for a permit that he hasn't even seen," McCarthy said.
The Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute, a consortium of University of Wisconsin-Superior and the University of Minnesota-Duluth, is studying the feasibility of the switch to natural gas.
"Lake Michigan Carferry is committed to making the Badger the cleanest ship on the Great Lakes," McCarthy said.
Durbin questioned the availability of a gas supplier or a qualified shipyard and said the Coast Guard had yet to write regulations covering liquefied natural gas on passenger vessels. Around $50 million in infrastructure upgrades might be needed at the Badger's ports, he said.
McCarthy said those were among issues being dealt with in the institute's study.