AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
In small communities, change can have big effects. That's what we're exploring in a new series called Town Journal. Our first story begins on the edge of Lake Michigan in Ludington, population 8,000. It's the home port of a car ferry, a ship named the SS Badger. In good weather months, it makes daily trips across the lake to Wisconsin, and the Badger is the last coal-fired car ferry in the U.S.
The Environmental Protection Agency says it's polluting the lake with coal ash and may require the Badger to stop sailing. NPR's Noah Adams paid a visit to Ludington.
NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: I came to see what people had to say about all this. I started by waving good morning to a guy running his snow blower. I told him I'm doing a radio story about the Badger, how they might have to shut it down.
CHRIS HINKLE: I like the Badger. It's good for tourism and things like that. I don't feel that we should put any of my federal dollars into it, though. It's got to support itself.
ADAMS: This is Chris Hinkle. He has a construction company, comes home at lunchtime to take care of the snow.
HINKLE: I keep it clean for the school kids. I don't keep it clean for the neighbors. I keep it clean for the school kids.
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ADAMS: So we're out collecting opinions. Chris Hinkle mentioned federal money, that was the notion to use stimulus funds to help modernize the ferry. And keep this in mind as we move around town: The ferry operation, they say, brings $20 million every year to the local economy. The jobs, the motels, the B&Bs, restaurants, gas stations, bike shop, galleries, ice cream, 20 million a year.
So let's got down to the water now to see the SS Badger. The SS is for steamship. She's at this dock all winter. She's 60 years old, almost frozen in ice and in time. The hull is black, upper decks white, black smokestack. The ship is longer, by far, than a football field. Out in the snowy wind with me is Kari Karr. She used to work for the Badger. We lean back to see the pilot house. It's five stories above us. OK, this is ice. This is wind.
KARI KARR: It's cold. It's miserable.
ADAMS: And there is the Badger ship.
KARR: It's so hard to picture, when you're standing here on a day like this, to picture what it's like to be up there, and looking out. And then the ship pulls out and heads down the channel and you're into the open water. I've loved doing it my whole life and still do.
ADAMS: During my time in Ludington, I'd wanted to meet with some of the current employees, but the company told them don't talk to reporters. LMC, Lake Michigan Car Ferry, is concerned about the EPA, the permit to dump ash in the water is under review and a change is likely to come. From her nearby antique store, Sally Cole has been watching the ferry sail off and return for 27 seasons. Her customers always know what's up with the Badger.
SALLY COLE: We can see it right from our front window. During the season, coming closer to April, they'll look out that way and say, oh, look, the smokestacks going. They're running, you know, they're getting ready to sail. It's a big deal around here.
ADAMS: The Badger runs daily, May into October, with two trips a day in deep summer, four hours across to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, four hours back and carries 600 passengers, 180 cars, buses, trucks, even those long white blades for the wind farms. Sally Cole likes to brag on the ship's crew.
One day, a Wisconsin customer called the antique store to say, that cupboard we were in looking at in the other day, could we buy that, and you could send it to us over on the Badger?
COLE: We blanketed and covered it and we took it over and they strapped it to the side of the ship, and it took a trip all by itself over to the owners who were waiting on the Wisconsin side.
ADAMS: I drive a few blocks to Bill Fay's house. He's a retired mental health worker, collects maritime artifacts, likes to take his grandkids on the Badger. His dad was a chief engineer on one of the big boats. His dad started out shoveling coal.
BILL FAY: When I grew up in the '60s, you couldn't look out on that lake and not see a boat out there, whether it'd be a lower laker or one of our car ferries or whatever. They were all dumping the coal ash at that time, I mean, all through the '40s and '50s. I don't remember a fish die-off or I don't remember any ecological disaster that came of that. And now, we got one little boat dumping a little bit of ash. You know, I think it's ridiculous.
ADAMS: Bill Fay said a little bit of ash, from the Badger. It adds up. Every sailing season, 500 tons of coal ash slurry goes into Lake Michigan. Arsenic is part of that waste mix, and lead and mercury.
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ADAMS: Actors warming up for a run-through of the play "Doubt" at the West Shore Community College. RJ Plummer(ph) is directing. Plummer has a degree in historical theater and is quite fond of the Badger.
RJ PLUMMER: It's a nostalgic experience for travelers to get onboard that old ship. She came down the slips in 1952 and that gal has been getting up every day during sailing season and going to work.
ADAMS: In season, people love to hear the Badger's steam whistle as it echoes off from the harbor and the presence of the ferry is a real part of why people say they like this town. Erica Karmeisool Reed is from the Detroit area. She runs the Ludington Arts Council. Her husband Ryan Spencer Reed was born here. He's a documentary photographer, travels the world. They've bought an old building downtown and have a loft upstairs. Erica says people decide to live in Ludington and then they find work.
ERICA KARMEISOOL REED: You know, it was exciting for us to go next door here at the Mitten Bar(ph). It's kind of this gathering place for people anywhere from 20 to even in their 50s. And we seem to notice that there were people there our age that we didn't know. As we got to meet these people, there were quite a few who were moving here.
ADAMS: Saturday night comes to Ludington, Michigan. At the girls' high school basketball game, the hometown Orioles will go on to win. Out in the lobby at halftime, I meet Mark Willis. He's a high school science teacher. I asked him what he would tell a student about the ash going into Lake Michigan.
MARK WILLIS: Obviously that's got to be corrected, because the lake is our first priority. I mean, that's what Ludington is centered around, is the lake and the health. We live here. We choose to live in this area because of how good the environment is. There's many other things that do damage as well. I guess I'd be hypocritical just to say, you know, it's just because of the Badger.
ADAMS: Here's what the future negotiations might bring. The Badger could be switched over to diesel or natural gas. Or a way could be found to keep the coal ash on board, and then take it to a landfill. But if the day ever comes when the ferry is retired, left at the dock, what would that mean?
BRANDY HENDERSON: Ludington will manage to survive.
ADAMS: Brandy Henderson runs the convention and visitor's bureau.
HENDERSON: We obviously have great beaches, top state park in Michigan, and many other assets of why people are coming here. But certainly the car ferry is the icon of our community. And without it, I think, we'll be missing a large part of our identity.
ADAMS: The EPA now says expect a draft ruling later in March. And then before anything is final, there's a period of public review. And so the SS Badger will indeed open this 2013 sailing season the first week in May. Noah Adams, NPR News.
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CORNISH: And we'd like to hear suggestions from you of other stories Noah might pursue for this series Town Journal. If you know of a small community dealing with new issues, tell us about it by going to NPR.org. Click on Contact Us and make sure to put Town Journal in your subject line.
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CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.