SS Badger sets sail with new system to reduce coal ash

The SS Badger arrives in Manitowoc on Friday, May 16, 2014. (WLUK/Laura Smith)

MANITOWOC - The coal powered SS Badger began its sailing season Friday.

The historic ship set sail not only with passengers and cars, but also new technology that will help it burn coal more efficiently.

Lake Michigan Carferry's president says the new combustion controls have never been installed on a coal fired steam ship, making it a process of trial and error.

The more than $1 million upgrade is the biggest portion of a two-year process as the company works to stop dumping ash into Lake Michigan.

As the SS Badger approached the dock in Manitowoc, black smoke puffed out of its stack.

However, work done during the off-season to install a new system is expected to visibly reduce the pollution.

Contractors ripped boilers apart, and added computers and meters to the Great Lakes only coal-fired ferry.

"It'll smoke less, it will burn much cleaner, much more of the coal will be burned, it will burn hotter," said LMC president and CEO Bob Manglitz.

Manglitz says that should result in the SS Badger burning less coal and producing less ash.

"We are hoping to reduce it by 20 percent at least, which is probably 2,000 tons of coal a year. That's very significant," Manglitz said.

The new system is a first step toward fulfilling a deal between the ship's owners and the federal government.

The agreement requires eliminating all discharge of coal ash from the ship by the beginning of next year's sailing season.

This winter, a retention system will be installed on the ferry. That's so the ash can be stored on board, and dumped on shore.

"She handled really well," said the SS Badger's senior captain, Jeffery Curtis.

The first sail of 2014 went smoothly according to Curtis.

But he did notice some differences during the crossing from Ludington, Michigan to Manitowoc.

"We're still tweaking the system, so we were going a little faster and a little slower, and a little faster and a little slower," said Curtis.

Passengers we spoke with say they didn't notice any changes during the voyage.

"He assured us that, the captain, that the EPA and the government is aware of these changes, but I don't know..." said Heather Nolan, Traverse City, Mich.

Nolan says she's skeptical about the ship's coal burning efficiencies.

But she's glad to hear the next upgrade will mean no more dumping ash into the lake.

"We spend a lot of time at Lake Michigan, swimming in it, we want to preserve it as long as possible," Nolan said.

Crowds of people welcomed the ship's arrival including Manitowoc's mayor, Justin Nickels.

He said he's glad to see the ship is still sailing, because of what it means for area tourism.

He says it brings in about $15 million a year.