Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington, Mich.

You have an economic impact. You have historic value that is second to none. And you have an icon that spans generations.”

Later, in the spacious conference room of the 43-year-old, Smithsonian-affiliated Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, executive director Norma Bishop looks out toward the lake and says, “The Badger is essential. It’s part of the fabric of who this community is. It’s maritime heritage and it’s essential for the economy, not just now but for the 21st century.”

The Badger is the only ship on the Great Lakes to still burn coal and, indeed, is the only coal-powered steamship in the United States. The other ferry on Lake Michigan, the smaller and faster Lake Express, which ferries passengers and vehicles between Milwaukee and Muskegon, Mich., uses diesel power. “The height of coal technology on the Great Lakes was probably 1930,” Hobbs says. More efficient means of propulsion, including diesel, came along with the 1972 passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. Unfortunately, diesel is also a much more expensive option than coal. In documents provided to the EPA in May 2012 as part of the permit process, the LMC estimated daily fuel costs with coal to be $8,400 a day, compared to $38,000 a day burning diesel.

Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of Alliance for the Great Lakes, believes the Badger has had adequate time to find alternate propulsion systems, diesel or otherwise, and says that, at the very least, the ship should off-load its ash on land instead of into Lake Michigan. “There are good environmental reasons not to dump in Lake Michigan, there are good legal reasons, and there are good cultural reasons,” Brammeier says. “I think that one of the frustrations with this is this particular company was given a significant amount of time to come into compliance with these regulations and still has not done so. So, it’s concerning for anybody who lives along or swims in or fishes in the Great Lakes that we’re still having arguments about whether or not it’s OK to dump coal ash into the open water of the lake.

“It’s not about what one company does,” Brammeier continues. “It’s about how we treat the Great Lakes for the next generation. If you start cutting corners the way we did in the ’50s and ’60s, we know where it leads us. We passed the point where we view the Great Lakes as trash receptacles decades ago.”

Stephen J. Lyons grew up along the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, which was the subject of his Sept. 1, 2012, American Way article, “Chicago’s Culture Coast.”