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U.S. House passes bill that lets Delta Queen cruise again

NATCHEZ — The Delta Queen could soon have permission to leave her dock and take to the river before making possible return visits to Natchez.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday to allow an exemption from some fire-retardant materials construction requirements for vessels operating within the boundary line of the United States’ inland waterways.

As a riverboat, the Delta Queen has never been more than a mile from shore, but hasn’t toured the Mississippi River since 2008, when the exemption to the 1960 Safety of Lives at Sea Act that allowed it to operate expired.

The act requires that ships with more than 50 staterooms be constructed of inflammable materials. The Delta Queen — commissioned in 1927 and able to accommodate 176 passengers — is made of wood, though in recent years much of the wood has been replaced with steel. Its hull is now double steel.

The exemption voted on Wednesday could change that if passed in the Senate, in which an identical bill has been introduced. Before it expired in 2008, Congress had previously approved the exemption for 42 years, from 1966 to 2008, and Natchez was a regular stop for the boat during that time.

Natchez Tourism Director Connie Taunton said city officials have been keeping track of the legislation since it was introduced.

“The Delta Queen is such an iconic part of our tourism industry as far as river travel goes, and it would be great because of the history of the Queen and the Mississippi for it to return,” Taunton said.

“It was the first grand-looking replication of what river boat travel was, and I think it is because of that and her history that people hated to see her put to dock after all those years.”

The Delta Queen is currently docked in Chattanooga, Tenn., operating as a floating hotel. While a third party owns it, the boat is operated through a lease agreement by DQSC, Inc.

The chief executive officer of DQSC, Inc., Cornel Martin, has said the company has plans to purchase the vessel from its current owners and make some necessary repairs if it is given permission to travel the inland waterways once again.

In July, Martin said the company would like to have the Delta Queen back touring by June 2, 2014, the 87th anniversary of when it started service.

“It still has to get through the Senate, but of course getting through the House is still a huge, huge hurdle,” Martin said. “We are confident that once it is into the Senate, it will have positive action there. We look forward to moving our plans forward.”