Adm. Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the United States Coast Guard, commented Friday on a campaign to reactivate a commercial vessel – the Delta Queen, a historic steamboat that has been out of operation since 2008 due to safety requirements.
Under SOLAS, large wooden passenger vessels like the Queen cannot make overnight trips. Zukunft told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that there are also more specific safety issues aboard the riverboat: first, her aging boilers are exposed to bare wood. Second, there is only one way to embark and disembark the vessel. And third, Zukunft said that there has been little progress in work to bring her up to modern standards.
The top-ranking Coast Guard officer is usually busy with matters like the service’s largest ever procurement contract or the possibility of forward deployment to the South China Sea, rather than the compliance status of one riverboat from the 1920s. However, the Delta Queen is no ordinary vessel: she has received multiple successive exemptions from SOLAS directly from Congress, starting with an amendment to the Safety of Life at Sea Act in 1966.
The latest effort to return the vessel to service also has high-level political support. Missouri's senators, Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, recently introduced a bill to restore her exemption. The legislation also has support from Ohio senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, and it passed the Senate Commerce Committee in January, paving the way for a floor vote.
The Delta Queen's operators say that they have placed a restoration plan on hold until the legislation passes, citing the $10 million cost of upgrades that would be necessary to put her back into service. If everything goes smoothly, and the SOLAS exemption is restored, they believe that they could be running trips up and down the Mississippi as early as next year.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.