With sinking duck boats in Missouri last year and the death of divers on the Conception this week, one would expect a bipartisan movement by Congress and the White House toward safer ships and regulations.
Instead, in an uncommon bipartisan move, Democrats and Republicans joined together recently and horrified marine safety experts by quietly sponsoring special legislation that overrides the most basic of Coast Guard safety regulations:
Don’t let passengers stay overnight on passenger ships made largely of wood.
The bill allows an old Mississippi river boat with a wooden superstructure, the Delta Queen, to sail again. The bill allowing the Delta Queen back onto the nation”s waterways was signed by President Trump in December.
The vessel is expected to set sail after refurbishments in 2020, but safety experts are adamant that no amount of overhauls can make the ship safe.
For example, Homeland Security officials testified that even with repairs, the Delta Queens boilers “open directly to the aged and dry wood structure,” and that “a fire within any one compartment could readily spread horizontally and vertically” and that the only way off the ship is via a gangway that would run “directly through the likely location of the fire.”
The Delta Queen, which has a steel hull, horrifies Coast Guard safety experts because of its all-wood superstructure construction. Such vessels were outlawed in 1966 after a horrific tragedy when the SS Yarmouth Castle burned in the Caribbean, killing 90 in a huge fire. The Delta Queen ran with exemptions until 2008 when it was finally shut down by regulators.
“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.
The exemption, sponsored by among others then Senator Claire McCaskill was attached to the Coast Guard’s authorization bill. So in order to pass the bill to keep the Coast Guard going, legislators in effect voted to remove the river boat from basic Coast Guard rules.
The exemption was seen by its sponsors as a noble attempt to rejuvenate tourists trade and spirt along the Mississippi by allowing a floating piece of history to make stops as it cruises up and down the river, more than 150 passengers staying on board overnight.
The political log-rolling is described in detail in a Roll Call article written by journalist John M. Donnelly.
Even in the wake of the duck boat tragedy in Misssouri, the Missouri delegation, pushed hard for the fire-safety exemption arguing the wooden ship could bring revenue and jobs to their state.
Former Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill led the charge to exempt the Delta Queen from fire-safety rules even though following the Table Rock Lake tragedy, she argued for tougher duck boat standards. The move was widely popular with politicians, citizens groups and some newspapers along the river. Few safety qualms were raised in these campaigns.
McCaskill noted that safety improvements will be required for the Delta Queen– but critics say those would take a long time to go into effect and even then would be inadequate to prevent fire.
The article written in Roll Call sketches a clear conflict between legislators and the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security brass.
“We do not support an exemption for any vessel that would increase the risk, particularly of fire at sea,” Rear Adm. Paul Thomas, the Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for prevention policy, told a House panel May 3 2017.
Even supporters of the Delta Queen’s use as an overnight cruise ship concede the boat does not pass safety muster. The bill, in fact, requires that the following sign be posted in every stateroom on the Delta Queen: “THIS VESSEL FAILS TO COMPLY WITH SAFETY RULES AND REGULATIONS OF THE U.S. COAST GUARD.”