The debate over the fate of the S.S. Badger pits history and tourism dollars against environmental protection.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants the nearly 60-year-old steamship to stop dumping tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan as it ferries as many as 600 passengers and 180 vehicles between Manitowoc and Ludington, Mich., most days from May to October.
But the Landmarks Committee of the National Park System Advisory Board just recommended designating the coal-burning ferryboat a national historic landmark. And local officials in Manitowoc and Ludington worry about losing jobs and tourism dollars if the S.S. Badger is forced to shut down at the end of the 2012 season because of an EPA deadline.
Enter UW-Superior and the University of Minnesota-Duluth with a possible solution — natural gas.
Researchers at the universities' Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute just announced they're working on a cost-effective way to convert the 410-foot-long, 7-story-high ship to the cleaner, economical fuel.
It would be a first for commercial vessels on the Great Lakes, according to the Lake Michigan Carferry Service, which operates the S.S. Badger. Yet ferries have run on natural gas for decades in Norway, the Associated Press reported.
Natural gas also has a big advantage over diesel in that the S.S. Badger's steam engines could stay put, preserving more of its history while avoiding costly replacement.
The S.S. Badger is a slice of Americana that specializes in family fun during the summer. Each departure and arrival includes crowds of happy travelers excitedly waving from the deck and shore, like a trip back in time to the glory days of transatlantic ocean liners.
The EPA should give university researchers enough time to determine the feasibility and cost of converting the S.S. Badger to natural gas. A successful transition could then lead to other vessels using cleaner fuel.
That would benefit history, tourism and Great Lakes protection.