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Bunning wary of fire-safety waiver for the Delta Queen

LOUISVILLE — U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning says he'll oppose any measure that exempts the riverboat Delta Queen from fire safety regulations because that would leave passengers exposed to danger.

"They ought to clean up their act before they come and ask for the exemption," Bunning, R-Ky., told reporters during a conference call Tuesday morning. "I sure don't want to have the Delta Queen come and burn down and kill however many people."

The fate of the steam-powered riverboat is uncertain because Congress has not yet exempted the boat from the regulations in the Safety of Life at Sea Act. The exemption has been approved nine times since 1968, but U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., hasn't released the bill from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said he will introduce a bill exempting the Delta Queen from the regulations now that Congress has returned from its summer recess.

Without a new bill, the boat's exemption from the safety requirements expires Oct. 31. That would shut down the Delta Queen, which has made stops along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers for 82 years.

The 285-foot sternwheeler can carry 174 passengers and 80 crew members. Supporters of the exemption argue that the wooden vessel should never have been included in a law that they say was intended to protect passengers on the high seas.

The possible shutdown of the boat has prompted cities to celebrate its stops this year, and some, such as Maysville, to hold rallies in an effort to try and save the boat, which is designated a National Historic Landmark.

Duff Giffen, director of the Maysville-Mason County Convention and Visitors Bureau, planned a rally for Tuesday to show public support for keeping the boat afloat.

Sara Swopes, office manager of the Maysville-Mason County Convention and Visitor's Bureau, said 80 percent of Delta Queen passengers take a guided tour during their stop in Maysville.

"It goes right back into commerce," Swopes said. "All that income goes right back here into the community."

Bunning said he's all for tourism, but he doesn't want to see the day come when the boat catches fire during a stop at a port.

"I'm not going to vote for an exemption unless the Delta Queen is fire-worthy," Bunning said. "What happens if it burns? Who is responsible for that?"