Senate votes this week will help determine whether a 91-year-old wooden steamboat can be revived as an overnight river cruise ship — even though the Department of Homeland Security calls that prospect an “unacceptable” fire risk.
A provision buried deep in a recently modified version of the Senate’s Coast Guard authorization bill would exempt the Delta Queen paddle wheel boat from federal law and Coast Guard regulations that require vessels with overnight accommodations for 50 or more passengers to be made of fireproof materials. The boat’s owner envisions the vessel as a Mississippi River cruise vessel for up to 174 passengers.
“It would be really cynical for lawmakers to use the Coast Guard’s own authorization bill to force them to look the other way on the fire risks this ship poses,” said Steve Ellis, executive vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense and a former Coast Guard officer. “This is a short-sighted parochial provision that will put lives at risk. Fire at sea is a scary thing for passengers and first responders.”
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Take it or leave it
On Tuesday, the Senate’s first vote of the lame duck session will be on whether to invoke cloture and thus end debate on the modified Coast Guard authorization measure. If cloture is invoked, a final passage vote in the Senate would occur Wednesday.
The House would have to pass it, too, for it to become law. Some senior House members are seriously concerned about the safety implications of the Delta Queen provision. But it is not yet clear if House leaders would permit representatives to amend the measure whenever they take it up.
Inclusion of the safety exemption for the Delta Queen in a Coast Guard bill, especially if it could not be amended, may force some Coast Guard proponents who are concerned about ship safety, members such as California Democrat John Garamendi, into a take-it-or-leave-it position.
“A blanket exemption from fire safety rules for any ship is inappropriate,” Garamendi, the ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Coast Guard panel, said in a statement. “However, it is critical that the Coast Guard bill pass and that the Trump administration cease its efforts to gut funding for the Coast Guard.”
‘Unacceptable’ fire risk
The basic question before Congress in the matter of the Delta Queen is whether the boat can become an overnight cruise ship. The question is not whether it should be preserved. Its brother ship, the Delta King, is a pierside hotel in Sacramento.
The Delta Queen is just one boat, but the vessel’s fate has become an issue of outsize dimensions on Capitol Hill because members who represent states up and down the Mississippi River see the boat’s possible revival as a political boon.
The Missouri delegation, in particular, has pushed for the fire-safety exemption for the Delta Queen because, its members have said, the vessel could bring millions of dollars and scores of jobs to their state alone.
Another Missouri tourist attraction, a so-called duck boat, sank on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri, in July. Seventeen of the 31 people on board died.
Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill has been an outspoken advocate of exempting the Delta Queen from fire-safety rules. But after the Table Rock Lake tragedy, she talked about the need for tougher safety standards for the duck boats.
McCaskill and others have written the Delta Queen fire-safety exemption provision so that it requires safety improvements each year to sections of the ship.
But the Coast Guard has said that no amount of changes could make the ship safe enough.
“The use of wood construction, even when supplemented by other fire safety measures, has failed time and again to provide an acceptable level of safety for United States citizens carried on board ships,” read a 2017 DHS communication to lawmakers who oversee the Coast Guard.
Another memo to members that year said: “Because of the advanced age, construction, and configuration of the Steamer Delta Queen, the vessel represents an unacceptable degree of fire safety risk to its passengers and crew.”
Born of tragedy
U.S. law was changed in 1966 to require fireproofing of vessels with large berthing capacity after a 1965 nighttime fire engulfed the SS Yarmouth Castle wooden steamship as it cruised the Caribbean. That blaze killed 90 passengers.
But the Delta Queen received several exemptions from that safety law in the past half-century. The most recent exemption lapsed in 2008 and has not yet been renewed, despite repeated efforts to do so by proponents of operating the boat as an overnight cruise vessel.
Last year, the Senate overwhelmingly passed, 85-12, a standalone bill exempting the Delta Queen from the safety law. But the House did not follow suit, and the push foundered.
Then, last April, the Senate fell four votes short of invoking cloture, and so ending debate, on a version of the Coast Guard authorization bill that contained the exemption.
Now the Senate is debating the Coast Guard bill again. On Tuesday, the chamber plans to vote on amending the measure with a substitute version that contains key changes but that retains the Delta Queen exemption language.