The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Urge Your Senators to Support Sen. Voinovich's Effort to Save the Delta Queen

Posted on August 18, 2008 at 07:11 PM

Please urge your Senators in the Mississippi Delta region to support the legislation to be introduced when Congress returns in early September by Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, who is trying to continue the historic Delta Queen’s operations on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, as Congress has done for over 40 years now.

For anyone who wishes to see this historic riverboat keep operating, the Senate is the key body, because in the House of Representatives Rep. Oberstar of Minnesota is using his role as chair of the transportation committee to obstruct efforts to keep the Queen alive. While we have at least 31 supporters of legislation similar to Voinovich’s in the House, we have substantially more strength in the Senate. Oberstar is keeping the House legislation bottled up in his committee.

The Delta Queen operates in all eight Delta states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois. Please urge all 16 Senators to support Sen. Voinovich in trying to save the historic Delta Queen.

One of the experts testifying to the extraordinary safety level of the Delta Queen is Jay Webster, a licensed Chief Engineer of steam, motor and gas turbine vessels of any horsepower, formerly an instructor at the State University of New York Maritime College, former engineer with the US Army Corps of Engineers, Director of Engineering of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company in New Orleans from 1994 to 2001–the period when the majority of the boat’s elaborate and expensive system of modern safety precautions were installed. Mr. Webster is currently based in New Orleans and employed with Horizon Lines, LLC, Kenilworth, New Jersey, as Fleet Technical Director/Life Cycle Manager, and has no current connection to the Delta Queen and thus no ax to grind in this matter except to stand up for the truth.

Here is a direct quote from Jay Webster as a professional maritime engineer with three decades of experience:

“While I was working with the Delta Queen, as part of that program, we removed tons and tons of wood and replaced it with steel. In the upgrade of the fire fighting and safety equipment on board the Delta Queen, American Classic Voyages not only met Federal guidelines, but exceeded them. If we were to compare these same systems, to what you will find on other steel vessels, in similar service, you will be hard pressed to find a vessel better prepared to carry passengers safely.”

The vast majority of the media coverage in Fox TV national news, USA Today, the British journal The Economist, the Ohio media (the Queen goes all the way up the Ohio), Helena-West Helena Arkansas Daily World and many other papers has been highly favorable to our point of view and critical of Oberstar. There was unfortunately an inaccurate article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on August 15 that gave most of the space to the anti-Delta Queen forces, but that was an exception to the rule of the great majority of media coverage that has been very supportive of efforts to save the Delta Queen.

We would like to clarify the key issues, because Oberstar and other anti-Delta Queen forces are misleading and confusing people about this.

The key positions of the Delta Grassroots Caucus are the following:

1) The Delta Queen is a model of safety with a flawless safety record and an array of safety precautions that go far beyond the legal requirements;

2) The riverboat is a national historic monument that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the last of the riverboats similar to those operating in the days of Mark Twain. It has a calliope built in 1897, has the same bell that Mark Twain used in the steamboat he took on the Mississippi, and the boat is designed to replicate the experience of the Mark Twain era as much as possible;

3) The Delta Queen promotes environmentalism by exposing many tourists to the natural beauty of the Mississippi and its tributaries, as Ken Smith of Arkansas Audubon and other environmental leaders have stated,

4) The Delta Queen generates tourist dollars in many impoverished communities from New Orleans to Helena-West Helena and throughout the Mississippi and her tributaries.

To underscore the fact that the Delta Grassroots Caucus is positively inclined toward unions, our chief expert on this issue is a member of a union: Jay Webster is a member in good standing of the Marine Engineers Benevolent Association, and has been a member since 1981. The MEBA is the oldest maritime union in the country. They represent licensed officers. Again, we are sympathetic to unions.

UNION DISPUTE: The key controversy is that two years ago the Delta Queen became involved in a labor dispute when the new owners kicked the union off the boat. If people want to take the anti-Delta Queen position out of sympathy for the union, that might be politically understandable but it is not logical–it makes no sense to say that there is a union dispute, and therefore this historic monument should be killed. The Delta Grassroots Caucus is in fact generally very supportive of labor and we would like to see the union reinstated on the Delta Queen. But they ought to find some way to resolve the labor dispute other than by killing a national historic treasure.

Please understand that our main interest in this is because it is the right thing to do, in support of safety on our rivers, to preserve a national historic treasure, and to promote environmentalism and appreciation of the Delta’s natural splendor. We have engineers and other experts who testify that the Delta Queen is in fact much safer than most other boats on the rivers. The economic impact is small but real, and people in places like Helena-West Helena and New Orleans need every penny they can get. In previous years the boat has also traveled up to Pine Bluff and Little Rock, and many other tributaries of the Mighty Mississippi, though not this year.

LUDICROUS REFERENCES TO THE SULTANA STEAMBOAT EXPLOSION IN 1865, OVER 140 YEARS AGO: In the House, many Members of Congress wrote a letter to Rep. Oberstar in support of the Delta Queen last year, but some have caved in under special interest political pressures. Some of them obviously decided they do not want to displease the transportation chair now, especially because the union in question is very influential in Oberstar’s district.

We understand but disagree with this view in not wanting to oppose Mr. Oberstar, a powerful committee chair. Oberstar and others have unbelievably tried to compare the Delta Queen of 2008 to the Civil War era Sultana steamboat, which exploded in 1865 and 1,700 people were killed on an outrageously overloaded steamboat in an era when riverboats were quite dangerous.

The Sultana analogy is so ludicrous that most people we have talked to break out laughing at the idea that a riverboat in 2008 with multiple modern safety precautions that goes far above and beyond the legal requirements as engineer Webster and other experts testify, that has repeatedly passed Coast Guard inspections, will explode like the Sultana did 143 years ago.

COAST GUARD HAS REPEATEDLY PASSED THE DELTA QUEEN IN SAFETY INSPECTIONS: The Coast Guard inspector, Marc Kruger, who is the Coast Guard’s top-ranking traveling inspector, has examined the boat 4 or 5 times this season and has taken a 5-day trip on the Queen. He has reported that she is in fine shape to continue in her present mode of travel for years to come.

The Delta Queen’s previous owners had the wisdom to go above and beyond the call of duty and make the boat go way beyond the minimum legal requirements–The Coast Guard classifies the Delta Queen’s fire load as “light,” but her fire suppression and detection systems are designed to handle the higher “ordinary” load. Jay Webster emphasizes that the Delta Queen actually surpasses the other riverboats on the Mississippi in its wide array of safety precautions.

Unlike the Coast Guard traveling inspectors who have actually traveled on and spent a lot of time inspecting the boat, the Coast Guard bureaucrats like the one quoted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story have always taken a bureaucratic, narrow view that “well it has some wood so let’s shut it down.” Don’t be misled by that. Congress has overruled the Coast Guard bureaucrats for 40 years now.

CONGRESS HAS PASSED THE EXEMPTION FOR OVER 40 YEARS: The Congress has passed this exemption for over 40 years now. As we have explained previously, the Safety of Life at Seas Act was passed in response to the sinking of a wooden ocean liner in the Caribbean Sea in 1966. Congress has repeatedly recognized that the Safety of Life at Seas Act was passed to deal with seagoing vessels and has no application to a riverboat that is never more than minutes from land, has a steel hull, the wooden parts have been coated with fire-resistant paint, every room is equipped with heat and smoke detectors, and extensive modern sprinkler and electronic monitoring systems have been installed. Additionally, there are guards on duty who patrol the riverboat during the night. Also, like big cruise vessels, the Delta Queen’s passengers and crew undergo a fire and boat drill at the beginning of each cruise.

THE RELEVANT LAW APPLIES TO SEAGOING VESSELS, NOT RIVERBOATS: Congress has long recognized that the Coast Guard should not apply requirements to a riverboat that were intended to deal with seagoing vessels. That is why the exemption has routinely passed for 40 years. Back when the Safety of Life at Seas Act was passed in 1966, the Coast Guard imposed administrative regulations that tried to extend SOLAS to include inland waterways with public law 89-777, and the steel-hulled Delta Queen, built in 1926 with a wooden superstructure, was the only boat affected. Since the law was not intended to include inland waterways, Congress easily passed SOLAS exemptions for the Delta Queen in 1966 and 1968.

Congress continued to pass these exemptions for 40 years by overwhelming margins, until the new owners bought the boat, instituted a non-union policy, and the labor dispute flared up. THAT IS WHAT IS DRIVING THIS ENTIRE EFFORT TO END THE EXEMPTION.

The company bears a huge part of the responsibility for this situation. Please understand that we would like to see the company and union resolve their differences, and it would be beneficial if the union could be returned to the Delta Queen.

UNION’S ERRONEOUS STATEMENTS: The Seafarers International Union put out a public statement saying that the unionized workers are the only ones who have enough safety expertise to keep the boat safe. The union represented the Delta Queen’s crew for more than 30 years, until Majestic America took over the boat in 2006 and made them non-union. Rep. Oberstar of Minnesota and Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii have led the charge to terminate the Delta Queen, with Oberstar emphasizing the need to avoid another explosion like the Sultana in 1865??? This is a major problem in confusing the issue because they were never concerned about safety in previous years when Oberstar and Inouye voted for the exemption, before the financial pressures regarding international seafarers’ wages and the new owners’ anti-union policy became the pressing issue that it is now.

The Seafarers International Union claims to have nothing to do with the Delta Queen issue, yet in a press release from November, 2007, they stated that: “This union has the only pool of unlicensed mariners with special training and a long history of meeting the needs specifically associated with the Delta Queen”. This is not correct, because the union did not train many former Delta Queen employees, and the majority of the crew just signed their Union contract at the very moment they started working on the boat.

The union also stated in that release that “Our role in helping safely operate the vessel is one reason why the waiver had been granted in years past.” This is again misleading. The union doesn’t hold an exclusive contract with the operator of the boat any more, and they are taking credit for safety inspections that the Coast Guard did both during the earlier union era and the current non-union era.

For over 14 years now, the various owners have made major investments in safety equipment and precautions. Actually most of these safety improvements were installed by the previous owners. It’s still the job of the US Coast Guard to make sure the boat is being operated safely, not the job of the Seafarers International Union. Their effort to claim the credit for the strong safety record of the vessel has no basis.

We would call upon our union friends to be more careful and accurate in their comments on this situation. Both parties ought to stop being stubborn and work out a compromise whereby the union can return and the Delta Queen can peacefully ply the waters of America’s heartland as she has for many decades.

COAST GUARD BUREAUCRACY IN WASHINGTON, DC LINES UP WITH OBERSTAR: The Coast Guard has always taken a bureacratic view that the boat has some wood so they would rather shut it down. There has never been an accident on the Delta Queen, but if there ever is the Coast Guard would be blamed, so their bureaucrats (as opposed to the inspectors who have actually examined the boat repeatedly and in detail) are paranoid on this question. As explained above, Congress has recognized the absurdity of this for 40 years now. The Coast Guard bureaucrat quoted in the Democrat-Gazette story looked at the boat one time when it was in New Orleans. The Coast Guard travel inspector, as mentioned above, praises the safety requirments of the vessel, and he has gone on entire week-long cruises and inspected her several times a year.

Above all, we ask you to convey to all of your Senators that we have studied this issue carefully and concluded that all of the merits lie with saving this majestic vessel. We would not dream of supporting this riverboat if there were even the slightest danger. Many of us and our loved ones have traveled on it. Do you think we would put their lives in danger and let them burn to death on the Mississippi River like the Sultana victims? That is a red herring if we ever saw one.

We are truly far more concerned about safety on the Delta Queen than the other side is. We would like to congratulate the many dedicated crew members of the Delta Queen for making her such a shining example of safe navigation on the Mississippi River and her tributaries.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER TOOK AN OVERNIGHT CRUISE ON THE DELTA QUEEN IN 1979: Would a sitting President of the United States have taken a lengthy cruise on a vessel if there were the slightest safety issue? Of course not. And that was in 1979, before the massive addition of new safety precautions in the period from 1994 to 2001.

Thank you and please convey this information to your Senators in preparation for the introduction of Sen. Voinovich’s legislation when Congress returns from the August recess. All supporters of the Mississippi Delta’s historic legacy should be grateful to Sen. Voinovich for his leadership in this campaign. Lee Powell, Delta Grassroots Caucus (202) 360-6347