TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — On one level, it's a straightforward case of a business seeking a government permit to discharge wastewater.
But when the Environmental Protection Agency rules shortly on whether to let the S.S. Badger car ferry continue dumping ash into Lake Michigan, it will be a milestone in a decades-old effort to keep afloat the last coal-fired steamship operating on U.S. waters. It will also stoke a nasty feud that has extended from social media to Congress.
EPA is expected to announce a tentative decision in March on a request from Lake Michigan Carferry Inc., owner of the 410-foot Badger, which hauls about 100,000 passengers and 30,000 vehicles across the lake between May and October. EPA ordered the company in 2008 to stop dumping the ash slurry and granted a four-year grace period – which expired in December – to find another disposal method or fuel source.
The company says it's looking at a switch to liquefied natural gas or an onboard ash storage system but needs more time. So unless regulators give in, the Badger may be grounded, although the company is publicly optimistic it will get its permit.
The ferry "is looking forward to providing great experiences for our customers in 2013 and many years to come," spokeswoman Terri Brown said Tuesday, adding that its sailing season will begin a couple weeks early this year to handle a cargo of wind turbines.
As the EPA has weighed the application, more than 6,000 unsolicited calls and letters have rolled in – a remarkable display of interest in a single vessel when dozens of large cargo ships and thousands of pleasure boats traverse the Great Lakes.
What sets the Badger apart? It's a cultural icon and a tourist draw in its home port of Ludington, while environmentalists consider it a scourge that dumps more than 500 tons of ash containing mercury, arsenic and other contaminants into the lake each season.
It also has a not-so-friendly relationship with a rival ferry company that has made the issue bitterly personal as well as political.
Launched 60 years ago to haul rail cars across the Great Lakes, the Badger was spared from the scrapyard in the late 1980s when an entrepreneur bought and refurbished it as a passenger ship. It offers a four-hour cruise across 60 miles of open water, an alternative to driving between Michigan and Wisconsin by way of crowded Chicago.
After starting service between Ludington and Manitowoc, Wis., Lake Michigan Carferry proposed getting a second vessel for a route farther south between Milwaukee and Muskegon, Mich. But local officials instead reached a deal with a rival ferry company, Lake Express, that could make the crossing in a diesel-powered catamaran in about 2 1/2 hours. It began operating in 2004.
Ever since, the companies have swapped accusations of preferential treatment from government. They or their supporters have exchanged volleys in newspapers, social media and advertising, and have hired lobbyists and drawn in leading politicians.
"We try very hard to be respectful," said Aaron Schultz, spokesman for Lake Express. "But it is a competitive relationship and we compete accordingly."
Robert Manglitz, president of Lake Michigan Carferry, complained that Lake Express was offered lower docking fees and received a federal subsidy to get started, although Lake Express says its only federal help was a loan guarantee. Milwaukee officials denied favoritism saying the Badger team didn't want competition.
After EPA issued tougher Clean Water Act rules in 2008, Lake Express fought Carferry's attempt to get the Badger permanently exempted as a National Historic Landmark. Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, also objected. "Special treatment for a polluter," Lake Express' lobbyist, Bill Broydrick, said as the debate raged. A Badger spokeswoman retorted that Lake Express was only interested in scuttling its competition.
With the EPA decision imminent, the volleys between the two sides continue.
Lynne Stechschulte, a Ludington developer of tourism websites, accused Lake Express of slipping anti-Badger ads onto her sites and trying to conceal their origin.
"It's like a smear campaign," she said in a phone interview. Schultz responded that Lake Express "has never engaged in misinformation campaigns."
An organization called "Save Our Ship: SS Badger" is running a social media campaign while an opposition group, "Save Our Great Lakes," sponsors a website called "stopdumpingcoal.org" and handed out small bags of coal at the state Capitol last May.
An EPA spokesman said that regardless of what the agency proposes, the public will get a chance to comment before a final ruling.