Guest Column: Stopping the dumping of coal ash into Lake Michigan

Editor’s note: The following is from an e-mail by Howard A. Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC).

Summer is coming to an end, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center is making sure that the SS Badger car ferry’s coal ash dumping into Lake Michigan is finally coming to an end, too.

ELPC and our colleagues worked with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and others to force the SS Badger car ferry to clean up its operations and stop dumping up to 1 million pounds of toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan each year. ELPC is now watchdogging to make sure that the SS Badger car ferry complies with the federal consent decree deadline to stop dumping coal ash into the lake by 2015.

Last fall, owners of the coal-burning SS Badger and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Justice filed a consent decree in federal court under which the SS Badger would reduce its coal ash dumping in 2014 and completely stop dumping coal ash in Lake Michigan by 2015. Here’s a quick update on what’s happening.

1. Last winter, SS Badger operators installed new digital combustion controls that enable the ship to operate more efficiently, burning less coal on its trips from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to Ludington, Michigan. This upgrade is intended to reduce fuel consumption by 15 percent this summer. That’s a step in the right direction that should have been done years ago.

2. By next summer, SS Badger operators plan to install a retention system that will store the coal ash on board the ship before disposing it in an appropriate on-land site. This should result in no more toxic coal ash being dumped into Lake Michigan, as the consent decree requires.

ELPC’s watchdogging will not end until the SS Badger’s coal ash dumping into Lake Michigan stops. The SS Badger’s owners talked about cleaning up for years prior to the consent decree, but then they stalled and delayed. The consent decree should add certainty, and ELPC will monitor to ensure it is implemented and enforced fully.

Working together, we’re on the verge of finally stopping the SS Badger’s dumping toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan. For more information on actions to protect our Great Lakes, please see

Best wishes,

Howard A. Learner
Environmental Law & Policy Center Executive Director

From the Sept. 3-9, 2014, issue

14 thoughts on “Guest Column: Stopping the dumping of coal ash into Lake Michigan

  • September 3, 2014 at 10:04 am

    At one time the owners of this old ship defended their environmental hazard stating thousands and thousands of vacationers will be forced to drive around Chicago. Perhaps in 1914.

    • September 3, 2014 at 12:14 pm

      All lab tests proved the ships ash was not harming the environment

    • September 4, 2014 at 9:51 am

      Well Howard and Albert….I guess it is all relative. Dickie Durban jumped on the Badger Coal Ash Dumping grandstand….and Howard hopped on too. Good face time in print and on the T and V…..but not a peep about the City of Chicago REGULARLY dumping untreated, RAW sewerage into Lake Michigan every time we have a storm that overwhelms the City sewerage treatment infrastructure. Dumping e-coli slurried feces and God knows what else…. into Lake Michigan….a fresh drinking water source for all of the surrounding cities in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. So….Howie, Dicky D….drink up. No micro-traces of Mercury for you….the taste of excrement laced drinking water is an acquired taste for many….and somehow, by your silence….. preferable.

  • September 3, 2014 at 10:44 am

    Interesting Column. I find it interesting that Howard Learner wants him and his group to claim credit for the “Progress” made on the SS Badger. The progress made on the SS Badger was done despite the efforts of groups like his. Lets not forget that they in partnership with the ships competitor worked with Durbin to block an extension so the ship could convert to LNG. The spin was that the plan was unworkable. Yet shortly after Durbin made that Shell announced plans to build a LNG fueling facilities in the Great Lakes region for ships. Interlake is looking in and has started the process of converting its ships to flex fuel Diesel/LNG engines. Its a joke, that Howard Learner and his group want to claim credit for progress, yet they were the ones who stood in the way of progress that was made despite their efforts.

  • September 3, 2014 at 11:07 am

    I find this column rather interesting. It seems that Howard Learner and his group seem to want to take credit for progress made by the SS Badger. Yet they stood against the company at every turn. It should be noted that they worked with Durbin in blocking an extension so the ship could move away from coal and into LNG fuel. According to Durbin because it was unworkable. However after Durbin said that Shell announced plans to build LNG fueling facilities in the Great Lakes. Interlake after that announce plans to convert some its ships to flex fuel LNG/Diesel Engines. Seems to me they want to take credit for the progress the SS Badger’s owners made and that was done despite Howard Learner and his groups efforts.

  • September 4, 2014 at 10:25 am

    I give the SS Badger owners credit for depositing a layer of arsenic, lead and mercury in Lake Michigan.

    • September 4, 2014 at 10:53 am

      Sure it isn’t from all that Chicago and Milwaukee sewage dumping?

  • September 4, 2014 at 5:36 pm

    Not only Chicago and Milwaukee dump raw sewage into the tributaries of Lake Mi. but most ALL of the cites and towns near Lake Mi dump their raw sewage into Lake Mi every time they have a heavy rain. Count how many municipalites border on the shores of our Lake.

  • September 5, 2014 at 9:43 am

    Sewage dumping needs to be addressed too but should not be used as an excuse for the SS Badger to sail along her merry way.

    • September 5, 2014 at 11:15 am

      Yes it should. Sewage dumping always gets a pass.

  • September 8, 2014 at 9:17 am

    The time has come to tax coal ash so coal burners are incentivized to harness technology to eliminate coal ash entirely. Technology already exists so ships can eliminate coal ash while at sea (or lake)! Then there’s the coal fired electric plants across the USA. In the land-based coal ash scenario, let’s say a tax of $10 per ton of coal ash is levied on every coal-fired plant in the US. With 140,000,000 tons of coal ash per year being produced, about 90,000,000 million tons is being buried and stored for later disposal (fill), while the rest (about 45,000,000 tons) is being used in concrete and other products.

    Do the math. That 90 million tons/year generates 900 million dollars of tax that can be used to clean up the mess that’s being made by current coal ash disposal methods. Coal fired plants can use plasma-arc vitrification systems – the same being used on the newest US Aircraft carriers – to vitrify the ash so it is reduced by 95% or more into an inert glass. And if technology to gasify the coal ash is adopted, it may be possible to recover some of the wasted energy for steam, which in turn generates electricity. That process could negate the “Coal Ash Tax” because it could provide electricity to consumers, keep our environment clean, and generate revenue for the coal-fired plants – – all at a much lower cost than hauling and storing the ash as being done now.

    Here’s the plan. All coal ash produced by US coal-burning energy plants will be taxed at a rate of $10 per ton. At the rate of 140,000,000 tons per year generated in the US, the coal ash tax potentially generates $1.4 billion per year that would be held in an environment cleanup trust fund, controlled by publicly elected representatives living in communities near coal ash disposal sites, much like your mayors and sheriffs – – make it local and not from some fantasy land in DC. And to spice up the motivation, when coal ash disposal sites are located within a flood plain or near a waterway, the coal tax would be doubled to a rate of $20 per ton.

    Qualified waiver incentives to escape the coal ash tax are simple. First, the coal ash tax is waived on ash that is recycled for building materials, which currently averages 40% at typical US coal-fired plants. Of the 140,000,000 tons currently produced each year in the US, about 56,000,000 tons are reused in building materials. That brings the Coal Ash Tax Trust Fund (let’s call it the CATT Fund) down to an annual potential of $840,000,000 for the coal ash that’s being disposed in landfills. But if a landfill or holding area (e.g., pond) is on a flood plain or within 500 yards of a waterway, an additional tax of $10 per ton is levied on ash disposed in those sites. For round numbers, let’s assume the CATT Fund will collect $1 billion in taxes annually for the mix of disposal sites being used today.

    At a $1 billion in new taxes, one would think energy companies will be motivated to eliminate coal ash altogether. Their second option is to apply a technology that was developed, tested and is being implemented by the US Department of Defense. A very-high-temperature process known as plasma-arc waste destruction is currently being installed on the next-generation of US Navy aircraft carriers. These plasma-arc systems can be optimized for a variety of waste streams. For coal ash, a plasma-arc system can be packaged to vitrify and gasify about 98% of the coal ash currently being buried in landfills. That’s roughly 82,000,000 tons of coal ash that can be kept out of your waterways and nearby landfills using a very affordable alternative to landfills.

    So what do you do with the remaining 2,000,000 tons that’s left each year from plasma-arc vitrification? This glassy-like residual material is an inert binder of minerals that traps traces of formerly toxic residuals, which can also be used for building materials beyond the current concrete and gypsum use. But there are dozens of other potential and high-value uses, particularly if you are a ceramics engineer who can add certain ingredients to the molten glass as it pours out of the plasma-arc vitrification system. How about amorphous photovoltaic cells? It’s possible to produce an 18% efficient photovoltaic cell from vitrified coal ash (as long as Solyndra isn’t working on it).

    The third motivator for energy companies using coal-fired plants is to set aside a research and development fund derived from a 10% portion of the CATT Fund. Qualified companies would be able to propose R&D projects and receive matching funds to achieve greater efficiencies in coal ash elimination or improve processes, such as using a plasma-arc vitrification system to generate synthetic gas that can drive a turbine generator. If a company’s coal ash elimination R&D project is successfully demonstrated and implemented, the company would be reimbursed from the CATT Fund’s R&D portion.

    In summary, neither energy companies nor their electricity customers would have to pay a cent of coal ash tax if all of the coal ash is reused for building materials, eliminated with technology such as a plasma-arc system or converted to energy by yet-discovered processes via CATT Fund.

    On land or sea, eliminating coal ash is technically feasible, but politically impossible. Most of the career politicians throughout the US are so technically and programmatically deficient, they are incapable of resolving these relatively simple challenges through legislative incentives. I recommend voting against every political incumbent in the November elections to rid the nation of the real ash problem – – dump their ashes!

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