Durbin: Stricter Requirements, Harsher Penalties & More Transparency Needed in S.S. Badger Deal

Consent decree should do more to prevent S.S. Badger from dumping harmful pollution into Lake Michigan after 2014 shipping season

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – In comments filed with the Department of Justice, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) today said that the consent decree formally lodged by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last month should specify larger reductions of coal ash discharges – a 40% reduction in 2013 and a 60 % reduction in 2014 – and include stricter penalties if the S.S. Badger does not meet those requirements.  Durbin also called for an explicit agreement that no more extensions will be granted to the S.S. Badger after the end of the 2014 season. 

“The S.S. Badger was given an extra five years to clean up the operation, but the owners never lifted a finger.  Fool me once, shame on you. Now we are giving them another two years.  Fool me twice, shame on me,” said Durbin.  “The agreement between the EPA and the S.S. Badger must be strengthened to make certain we aren’t facing another battle with the Badger in two years.  It is unacceptable that this ship continues to dump 500 tons of coal ash each year into Lake Michigan – a quantity greater than the total waste dumped annually by the 123 other large ships operating on the Great Lakes.  I urge Chicagoans to make their voices heard by submitting comments before tomorrow’s deadline.”


Additionally, Durbin asked the Department of Justice to increase transparency within the consent decree by requiring the owners of the S.S. Badger to report monthly progress toward elimination of coal ash dumping that is certified by an independent third party and made publicly available on an easily accessible website.

Earlier this month, Durbin joined leading environmental organizations in urging Chicagoans to tell the EPA to stand by its plans to stop the S.S. Badger’s polluting of Lake Michigan. The consent decree, formally lodged by the EPA in March, would end the S.S. Badger’s coal ash dumping by 2014 and reduce its discharges each year until then.

The public may submit comment on the proposal until April 26, after which the EPA will conduct a review and issue a final decision on the case.  Those seeking to submit comments can do so by contacting the U.S. Department of Justice through email or post.  Commenters should reference the case, United States v. Lake Michigan Trans-Lake Shortcut, Inc., d/b/a Lake Michigan Carferry Services and S.S. Badger.  

In 2011, the Chicago Tribune published a series of articles calling attention to the pollution from the S.S. Badger, which is owned by the Lake Michigan Carferry Service and is the only coal-fired ferry still operating on the Great Lakes.  Every year, as the ship brings people and cars between its home port of Ludington, MI to Manitowoc, WI, it dumps 509 tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan – more than the total waste dumped by the other 123 largest ships operating on the Great Lakes combined.  Coal ash contains arsenic, lead and mercury, all of which cause cancer when consumed in drinking water, cause serious damage to fish populations, and poison fish that are part of the food supply. 

In 2008, the S.S. Badger’s owners were granted a waiver from the EPA to continue operations while retrofitting the ship to run on diesel instead of coal.  Rather than complying, they sought numerous extensions of the waiver.  The Badger’s owners also negotiated an agreement with the EPA under which the ship was given a December 2012 deadline to install a new boiler that would prevent further coal ash dumping.  In an attempt to circumvent the terms of that agreement the Badger’s owners then attempted to secure both the designation of the ship as a National Historic Landmark and legislative language that would exempt “vessels of historic significance” from EPA regulation of discharge.  Durbin successfully blocked that language from being added to the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act last year.


Text of Senator Durbin’s letter to the Department of Justice is below:


April 25, 2013

The Honorable Ignacia S. Moreno

Assistant Attorney General


P.O. Box 7611

Washington, DC 20044-7611

RE:      United States v. Lake Michigan Trans-Lake Shortcut, Inc., D.J. Ref. No. 90-5-1-1-10771

Dear Assistant Attorney General  Moreno :

I urge you to use all of your authority to protect Lake Michigan from harmful pollution by the SS Badger.  Lake Michigan is an environmental treasure, and all of us who live on the shores of the lake want to protect it for generations to come.  Lake Michigan provides drinking water and recreation for millions of people and should not be used as a dumping ground.  It is unfortunate that the SS Badger continues to operate, using decades old technology without making any significant upgrades to either retain coal ash on board for proper disposal on shore or convert to a new cleaner fuel source.  

As a result of a waiver that was included in the Vessel General Permit (VGP), the S.S. Badger was given a deadline of December 20, 2012, to upgrade its boiler and stop dumping more than 500 tons of coal ash into Lake Michigan each year – a quantity greater than the total waste dumped annually by the 123 other large ships operating on the Great Lakes.  The coal ash contains mercury and other pollutants that can be consumed by fish and distributed throughout the Great Lakes food web.  Unfortunately during the four years that the SS Badger was given to convert and upgrade the ferry, it is now clear that the owners did nothing to meet that deadline and clean up the operation.   Instead, the owners appear to have spent more time seeking a statutory waiver from Clean Water  Act regulations, while simultaneously filing for a clean water permit to continue operations while discharging coal ash into Lake Michigan. 

I have carefully reviewed the draft consent decree that the US Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency have entered into with the owners of the SS Badger, and while I am pleased that all parties have agreed to a date certain after which the ferry will no longer dump coal ash into Lake Michigan, I request that this consent decree be strengthened in a number of areas:

  • Include an explicit agreement that no more extensions will be granted to the SS Badger to continue dumping coal ash into Lake Michigan after the end of the 2014 shipping season.
  • Include significant penalties for non-compliance to ensure that Badger’s owners do not just chose to “pay to pollute” rather than comply with the benchmarks included in the consent decree.   Strong penalties are appropriate given the value of the Great Lakes drinking water supply and the serious threat from coal ash containing mercury and other pollutants.
  • Specify larger reductions of coal ash discharges to better protect Lake Michigan. Currently, the proposed decree contains no specific percentage reduction in 2013 and only a 15 percentage reduction in 2014.  This would still allow the SS Badger to dump more than 400 tons of coal ash into the lake in 2014.  Significant reductions are required to provide a clearly defined pollution reduction path toward compliance and ending coal ash dumping into Lake Michigan.  I propose a 40% reduction in 2013 and a 60 % reduction in 2014.  These limits will literally reduce by half the damage the SS Badger would cause to Lake Michigan over the next two seasons. 
  • Finally, the final consent decree should require more transparency of reporting. The S.S. Badger should be required to report its monthly progress toward elimination of coal ash dumping. Each report should include both self-reported and externally verified evidence of progress toward elimination of dumping, such as proof of expenditures for ash capture technology, draft contracts for landfilling, etc. The volume and mercury content of ash discharged through 2014 must be publicly reported to ensure transparency and public accountability. These reports should be certified by an independent third party and should be made publicly available on an easily accessible website. Confidentiality claims must not prevent the public from being fully informed of the amount of pollution the S.S. Badger dumps into Lake Michigan.

Thank you for your attention to this important issue. 


CC: EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe