WASHINGTON — The Delta Queen, which spent decades cruising the Mississippi until 2008, may return to the river with the help of steamboat fans in Congress.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has endorsed a bill that would allow the ship to leave its berth in Chattanooga and travel again up and down the Mississippi River.
"This vessel is a representation of the Mid-South’s rich heritage revolving around the Mississippi River and I fully support its ability to operate on the river as it has for generations," said Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro.
Crawford, a member of the committee, helped push legislation that would exempt the ship from a fire safety law that prohibits such wooden vessels from commercial operation.
The Delta Queen had been granted an exception to the law — designed primarily for ocean liners — until 2008. Since then, it has been docked in Chattanooga, Tenn., where it operates as a floating hotel.
The bill would reinstate a statutory exemption from the requirement that all passenger vessels carrying over 50 passengers on overnight excursions be constructed with fire retardant materials. The exemption would extend for 15 years.
The Delta Grassroots Caucus is backing the effort in Congress that is being led by Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, and was championed through the committee by Crawford.
"With the American Queen having returned to the Mississippi last year, and the most famous of all the steamboats, the Delta Queen, now enjoying a resurgence of support, steamboating on the Mighty Mississippi is making a big comeback," said Lee Powell, director of the Caucus.
The paddlewheel steamship was built in 1927 and spent its early years on the Sacramento River in California. It entered regular passenger service plying the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers in 1948.
Following a series of horrific fires aboard international passenger ships, Congress in 1966 required all passenger vessels operating in the U.S. to be built of non-combustible materials. The Delta Queen was granted an exemption, which Congress revoked in 2008.
Powell said the Delta Queen has had an exemplary safety record and that work has been done in recent years to replace the wood structure of the upper deck with steel. The ship also has a smoke detection system, sprinklers and a 24-hour fire watchman, he said.
The bill does face some opposition.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., issued a harsh criticism of the committee’s decision to endorse the bill, calling it "irresponsible" to put the desire to preserve maritime history ahead of public safety.
"The list of factors about this vessel for which we know little or nothing illustrates that the majority has acted less on fact and more on blind faith in approving this bill," he said.
Garamendi noted that the committee has no idea of the vessel’s present condition and has seen no plans on proposed retrofits to address fire safety issues.
The most recent Coast Guard inspection report in 2008 found numerous deficiencies in the vessel’s condition and operation and noted that the steamboat’s wood construction "presents an unnecessary and unacceptable accumulation of combustible fire load," Garamendi said.