Is the classic 1927-built stern-wheel steamboat Delta Queen a national treasure or a not safe enough to operate? The ship does not meet current safety standards as established by the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations. A series of rolling two to four year exemptions had allowed the riverboat to operate from 1968 to 2007, despite not meeting the rules. After being laid up since 2008, there is now an effort underway to pass legislation to provide a new exemption to allow the venerable old boat to be put back into service.
The concerns about safety are real. In an interview with the Post-Dispatch, Coast Guard Admiral Paul Zukunft addressed issues related to fire safety, access and vessel condition. Currently the Delta Queen’s boilers, which date to 1926, are exposed to bare wood, for example. He also was concerned that there’s only one way on and off the boat. He commented on how little work has been done to get the boat up to date.
Delta Queen supporters promise that the safety issues will be addressed and have promised to spend $10 million upgrading the ship once the regulatory issue are resolved. Under SOLAS, large wooden passenger vessels like the Queen cannot make overnight trips, so a SOLAS exemption will be required for operation, even if the outstanding safety issues are addressed.
The case of the Delta Queen raises an interesting question. How much leeway should be given to historic vessels which do not meet current regulations? On one hand, the Delta Queen is a U.S. National Historic Landmark and is a beautiful memento of times past. The Delta Queen operated safely for close to 80 years, including almost 40 years under previous SOLAS waivers. On the other hand, is it fair to other steamboat operators whose vessels do meet the safety requirements?
The current owners of the Delta Queen have charged that American Steamboat Company, a competitor, has spent tens of thousands of dollars on lobbyists to keep the Delta Queen tied up. American Steamboat operates the stern-wheel river boats, SS American Queen and the MV American Empress. They will be adding a third vessel, the American Duchess in June of this this year.
The situation with the Delta Queen is in many respects reminiscent of the case of the SS Badger a few years ago. The SS Badger is a 410-foot long coal-fired passenger and vehicle ferry operating in Lake Michigan. She began sailing in 1953 and is the last coal-fired passenger vessel operating on the Great Lakes. To her admirers, she is a national treasure, while to her detractors, she was an environmental menace that dumped tons of toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan daily. The Badger had been operating on an EPA waiver that allowed it to continue dumping ash through 2012. Initially, the operators of the SS Badger attempted to have the wavier extended indefinitely. Other ferry operators objected to what they considered to be unequal treatment. Environmentalists were also understandably unhappy about the prospect of continued dumping.
Ultimately, a compromise was struck. The Badger’s owners agreed to a schedule of decreased dumping along with the installation of an ash retention system, which allows the ash to be disposed of ashore. By the summer of 2015, SS Badger was no longer dumping ash in Lake Michigan.
With luck, the US Coast Guard, the owners of the Delta Queen, and the US Congress will be able find the right balance between historical preservation and passenger safety to allow the historic riverboat to return to service.