Park Service warned of gas; told Coast Guard about Powell risks
By Judd Slivka
The Arizona Republic
December 1, 2000

Six Lake Powell houseboaters died of carbon monoxide poisoning between the time the National Park Service first warned the Coast Guard there might be a problem with rear-venting generators and a joint federal agency inquiry found conclusive proof this fall.

Elapsed time: six years.

Officials at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area sent two letters to the Coast Guard asking the service to make changes to ventilation systems that could have saved lives.

The Arizona Republic reported this week that nine deaths and 102 serious injuries at Lake Powell in the past decade have been caused by carbon monoxide fumes. Of those, five deaths and 67 serious injuries have resulted from the odorless, colorless gas coming out of houseboat generators and pooling beneath the swimming deck platform.

Coast Guard officials, contacted Wednesday for comment, did not return phone calls.

But a 1994 Park Service letter warned the Coast Guard about a disturbing trend involving houseboats with rear-venting generators.

The 1990s proliferation of modern household appliances requiring electrical power on houseboats, such as televisions and stereos, created the need for auxiliary generators. Glen Canyon officials noted the corresponding rise in deaths and injuries in letters to the Coast Guard, which has authority to order safety recalls on maritime equipment.

In 1994, after a 12-year-old Utah boy drowned in the lake, officials wrote: "...(T)he victim was under the aft deck, near the generator exhaust port, for approximately 3 minutes before drowning ... In addition, we are aware of two other carbon-monoxide related incidents involving houseboats with onboard generators. In each incident, the victim was swimming; they quickly became intoxicated by carbon monoxide fumes from an exhaust port underneath the aft deck."

In 1999, after two deaths the previous summer, park officials wrote again: "The National Park Service has investigated 10 carbon-monoxide related deaths and injuries over the past six years. In all cases, they involved exhaust gases being trapped in the stern cavity."

The chief of the Coast Guard's recreational boating product assurance division replied: "The Coast Guard has no regulations affecting the exhaust lines or the installation of swim platforms."

The service did, however, support the recommendations of the American Boat & Yacht Council, agreeing with the Park Service's thoughts on requiring exhaust ports to be located on the side of ships, rather than on the rear.

The American Boat & Yacht Council is a non-profit organization that has been writing voluntary standards for the marine industry for 46 years. For the past two years, the council has been pushing the dangers of rear-venting generators.

"We just put it out there," said Skip Moyer, the council's president, "and we said 'Here's a suggestion. You can take it or leave it.' "

With no recall or Coast Guard enforcement imminent, companies had the option to change the placement of exhaust systems. Some did, and some didn't, despite the council's suggestion.

"Why didn't companies change?" Moyer said. "Let me turn it around. We have statistical proof that if you wear a personal floatation device, a life jacket, you dramatically reduce your chance of drowning. But some people still don't. Now, I don't know why they don't. Maybe it's because they cost $14.95. Maybe they chafe, maybe they don't like the colors or it doesn't fit.

"I don't understand why they wouldn't make a safety choice like that."

Frustrated with the lack of response from the government, officials at Glen Canyon decided in September to send letters warning of the risks directly to 60 houseboat manufacturers.

"Of the nine fatalities, seven were on or near their houseboats, and all seven were either on the back deck or in the water near the swim platform located in the rear of the boat," officials warned. "All of the houseboats where the incidents occurred have similar rear-mounted exhaust systems."

Only four companies -- Gibson Fiberglass Products, Sharpe Houseboats and Thoroughbred Cruisers -- responded to the letters. They told the Park Service they had either addressed, or would address, the problem.


    Copyright 2000, The Arizona Republic. All rights reserved. This article graciously provided courtesy of The Arizona Republic.