S.S. Badger Converts to Natural Gas

Increasing awareness for the environment is something to which everyone can relate.  Concepts like Global Warming, Peak Oil and Carbon Footprints are more than just buzzwords.  They are examples of real concerns that will play major roles in the future of the world. 

And oftentimes, some of the legislation that gets passed to confront these issues escapes our notice; our focus is often on items more germane to preserving our way of life.  But sometimes, even attempts at improving the environment have a way of impacting our lives in a manner that we hadn't really considered. 

The S.S. Badger

A good example would be the Vessel General Permit, issued by the Environmental Protection agency under the Clean Water Act. The purpose of these permits (which applied to all vessels in excess of 79 feet in length who regularly discharged anything into the water) was to help protect the nation’s waters from ship-borne pollutants and reduce the risk of introduction of invasive species from ballast water discharges.

We all know only too well about invasive species: Zebra Mussels, Asian Carp, and Eurasian Watermilfoil are three perfect examples of invasive species and what happens when they are accidentally introduced into a native/indigenous population.

Unfortunately, a very cool, useful and enjoyable "attraction" -- the S.S. Badger carferry that moves an incredibly huge cargo of passengers, cars, trucks, recreational vehicles and much more between Ludington, Michigan and Manitowoc, Wisconsin every year -- was recently handed a bitter pill to swallow from the U.S. EPA.

The Vessel General Permit originally included the Badger because of the ash it regularly discharged into Lake Michigan from its coal-fired boilers. However, an update to the Permit will now disallow the discharge of the ash after December 19th of 2012. Lake Michigan Carferry (Badger's parent company) has until that date to come up with a solution...

Coal waiting to be loaded on to the SS Badger in Manitowoc

Keep in mind that -- at least in my humble opinion -- the Badger is nowhere near the point where it can be classified as anything close to a major polluter: from a story on the the "Visit Ludington" website:

"The ash discharged by the S.S. Badger was tested by an independent environmental lab and found to be non-hazardous, and Lake Michigan Carferry has spent over a quarter million dollars on high grade coal and boiler updates."

But, when government regulations are considered, well... you know how that goes. They certainly don't care that (from the same site):

"The S.S. Badger is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the last coal-fired passenger ship in the United States. The ship employs 250 people and is estimated to bring $35 million annually to both Michigan and Wisconsin."

No one, especially me -- my wife and I have taken several trips on the majestic ship -- would want to see the Badger head to a permanent docking space for decommission... So, bottom line was: what could be done?

Well, according to a February 8th press release I received from Lynda Matson, Vice President/Customer Service & Marketing for the Badger:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has granted Lake Michigan Carferry Service (LMC), the owner of the S.S. Badger, permission to apply for an individual permit. LMC recently received the news in a call from Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow.
The Badger, a historic car ferry that runs between Michigan and Wisconsin, is currently operating under a series of guidelines established by the EPA under a Vessel General Permit, which expires in December. If approved, the individual permit would allow the Badger, which is believed to be the last coal-fired vessel in regular commercial service in the U.S., to continue operating.
To date, LMC has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on researching a solution and believes that there is great promise with natural gas. "We are currently working with the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute to explore the option of converting the Carferry to run on clean-burning natural gas," said Lynda Matson, Vice President of Customer Service and Marketing. "Many feel that natural gas is the fuel of the future for the marine industry."
Cars driving onto the Badger

More importantly, Lake Michigan Carferry (LMC) has recently been awarded a $75,000 grant from the Wisconsin State Energy Office, this to begin the engineering work for converting the SS Badger from coal-fired boilers to natural gas as the fuel source.

This I think is a marvelous solution. Natural gas is quite plentiful and is far less polluting than either gas or diesel fuels. Natural gas has tremendous potential to revolutionize travel -- not just automobiles (a large number of fleet vehicles has already been converted), but maritime vessels as well. The S.S. Badger will serve as a model vessel in a study being conducted.

The engineering work, to be completed in June of this year (2012) is critical, not only to the survival of the Badger -- which has been in service nearly every year since 1953 -- but likely to the future of transportation itself, both in the shipping industry and transportation sector in general. There are a few interesting "sticking points" here... not the least of which is (according to a document www.epa.gov from the EPA) "There are currently no U.S. Regulations for the Storage of CNG Below Deck." That document is definitely worth a read, even with the govspeak it contains.

No matter how one feels about the ash that the Badger has previously dumped into the water (five miles offshore in very deep waters), Lake Michigan faces far greater challenges, including increasing demands for sending its precious water to an ever-expanding population that shares its resources. And I am not interested in getting involved in a political controversy here...

I am just a citizen who likes the value of history, and the S.S. Badger certainly has a lot of that. A conversion to natural gas seems like a great solution to the situation, and I hope that, come next year, the Badger will still be sailing across the lake -- as she has done for the last sixty years -- carrying people, cars, trucks and other precious cargo. Only now, the power source will be natural gas: clean and green.

As always, we hope to see you On the Lake!

R. Karl 

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