TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — A federal panel on Wednesday endorsed the designation of a coal-burning Lake Michigan ferryboat as a national historic landmark, a defeat for opponents unhappy with the vessel's practice of dumping waste ash into the lake.
Meeting in Washington, D.C., the 10-member Landmarks Committee of the National Park System Advisory Board voted unanimously with one abstention to support the S.S. Badger's nomination. The Badger began hauling rail cars on the lake in 1953 and was refurbished to carry passengers and their vehicles in the early 1990s. It's the nation's last steamship powered by coal.
"We're very excited and honored that the committee supported us," said Lynda Matson, spokeswoman for Lake Michigan Carferry Service, which operates the 410-foot vessel that travels between Ludington and Manitowoc, Wis.
The recommendation now goes to the full advisory board, which probably won't consider it until next spring, officials said. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would make the final decision.
Environmental groups and a competing ferry service unsuccessfully asked the committee to delay action because of a recent move in Congress to link the proposed landmark designation to the ship's coal ash discharges.
The Badger typically dumps about 509 tons of ash into the lake every year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 gave the company four years to find an alternative. Company officials say they plan to convert to natural gas but need more time because the process will be expensive and complex.
Three Republican House members — Bill Huizenga and Dan Benishek of Michigan and Tom Petri of Wisconsin — last week sponsored an amendment to a Coast Guard bill that would bar EPA from imposing tougher regulations on a vessel that's on the national landmark list or has been nominated for it. It didn't mention the Badger but was tailored for it.
The measure was approved, although a final vote hasn't been taken on the entire bill.
Bill Broydrick, a Washington lobbyist for Lake Express, was among opponents of the historic landmark designation. Lake Express is a diesel-powered ferry that provides passenger service between Muskegon and Milwaukee.
"This is an outrageous effort to circumvent the whole national historic landmark process," Broydrick told The Associated Press by phone. "This legislation protects a polluter in perpetuity. We don't mind competing with anyone who's environmentally compliant, as we are."
Matson said, "We just hope that the public is aware that Lake Express is fighting us on a competitive level, not on our historic merit."
In a letter to the landmarks committee, 14 environmental groups also urged a delay until the panel could consult with EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about how the Badger's coal ash affects the lake. Coal ash contains low concentrations of arsenic, selenium, lead and mercury but is not classified as hazardous under waste laws.
"There is no reason the Badger car ferry should be permitted to dump toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan when the rest of the Great Lakes fleet has cleaned up its act," said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
J. Paul Loether, chief of the National Historic Landmarks Program, said members of the advisory panel shared the concerns about pollution but believed they should be addressed by EPA or Congress. The committee bases its decisions about landmark designations solely on candidates' historical significance, he said.
"They were trying to stay within their legal authority," Loether said.