U.S. must take lead on houseboat safety
Editorials represent the opinion of the newspaper, whose editorial board consists of Keven Ann Willey, Phil Boas, Jennifer Dokes, Doug MacEachern, Joel Nilsson, O. Ricardo Pimentel, Robert Robb, Laurie Roberts, Linda Valdez, Ken Western and Steven Benson.
The Arizona Republic
January 4, 2001

Houseboat outings at Lake Powell conjure images of festive gatherings on clear, cold blue waters. But the outings can and do turn deadly.

Over the last decade, most of the nine deaths and 102 injuries at Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona line have been linked to carbon monoxide poisoning from the boats' gas-powered generators. Experts who have examined the records of these fatalities and injuries point to a serious flaw in some types of houseboats.

This is a deadly issue that must be addressed soon, before another boating season is upon us and more tragedies occur. There are several courses of possible action, including holding congressional field hearings with the aim of enhancing regulatory authority to issuing an immediate recall of houseboats.

The issue needs somebody to take the lead.

Arizona Republic reporters Judd Slivka and Maureen West have brought the sobering statistics to the public's attention in a comprehensive and well-researched series of articles. Last Sunday they re-created the tragic story of two of the victims -- Colorado brothers Logan and Dillon Dixey, ages 8 and 11, respectively -- who died while swimming one evening last summer off the houseboat that their parents owned jointly with another family.

Autopsies revealed that drowning due to excessive carbon monoxide exposure that caused them to pass out was the cause of death. This was the break that researchers needed to establish the link to houseboats.

Dr. Robert Baron, a Phoenix emergency room physician who also works for the National Park Service, renewed inquiries he had been making for years. He teamed up with Jane McCammon, a carbon monoxide expert with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, to find extraordinarily high levels of carbon monoxide beneath the swimming decks of houseboats.

Lake Powell is the first area to be extensively studied. A fatality study is now under way at Lake Cumberland, Ky., considered by some to be the houseboat capital of the country. In time, Lake Mead also will be studied.

The problem in Arizona is confined to private houseboats that use a rear venting system. Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas, the National Park Service's concessionaire for the lake, made the switch to side-venting houseboats several years ago for safety reasons. While some manufacturers have ceased building houseboats with rear vents under the swimming platform, others have not.

The National Park Service has asked that the U.S. Coast Guard urge that boat builders immediately correct the hazard and consider a recall. The Coast Guard says it's premature to issue a recall "because we do not know how many manufacturers build houseboats with the suspected deficiency nor is the corrective action clear."

The Coast Guard has sent letters to 85 manufacturers, giving them until Jan. 29 to submit a plan for correcting the design flaw and asking for a tally on the number of boats involved.

That's a start.

But other options that could focus public attention on the problem and spur reform are available.

Congressional field hearings -- we suggest holding them in Arizona, Utah and Kentucky -- would focus public attention and require houseboat manufacturers to justify their designs under oath. They also could be the catalyst for more regulatory authority for the Coast Guard, which in correspondence has said its regulations are "intentionally minimal." Then there is the option of enhanced state regulatory authority. It might be possible to prohibit registration of houseboats that still use a rear-venting exhaust system. Already, the Department of Health Services and the Arizona Game & Fish Department appropriately have launched public awareness campaigns to warn boaters of the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.

There's also the recall option. At about $300 to $400 per boat to redirect the exhaust system, cost would be minimal. It's preferred by Rep. Scott McInnis of Colorado, the only member of Congress who thus far has taken an active interest in this issue of houseboat safety. The fact that nobody from Arizona's congressional delegation is making noise is disappointing. The problem, as serious as it is, is correctable now. Sure, personal responsibility plays a part. But there's also a role for a more defined federal presence since many houseboat manufacturers have failed to correct the defects on their own.

Lake Powell is popular with houseboaters, and several of the deaths there over the last decade have been linked to carbon monoxide poisoning.

  1. Call for leadership

Some houseboats on lakes in Arizona have a serious design flaw that has been linked to deaths on Lake Powell. While the U.S. Coast Guard has asked manufacturers to suggest a way to correct the design flaw, one Colorado congressman has called for an immediate recall.

This is a time for leadership, and we believe the following people are well positioned to provide it:

  • U.S. Sen. John McCain has made a career of pushing for safety and quiet at the Grand Canyon. The number of deaths on Lake Powell deserves his attention as well.

  • U.S. Rep. Bob Stump represents the region of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. As the senior member of the state's delegation, he should get involved and demand greater accountability from the Coast Guard.

  • Researchers Dr. Robert Baron, a Phoenix emergency room physician, and Jane McCammon, a carbon monoxide expert with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Denver, should continue their pioneering work linking houseboating fatalities with carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • The National Marine Manufacturers Association, the industry lobby for all kinds of watercraft, should recognize the serious threat to public health and push for corrective design changes.

  1. How to be heard

If you think reform is needed, whether it be congressional hearings, a recall of houseboats or increased regulatory authority, here are two ways to make your voice heard. Contact:

  • U.S. Rep. Bob Stump, R-Ariz., in Phoenix at (602) 379-6923 or in Washington, D.C., at (202) 225-4576.

  • Adm. James M. Loy, the Coast Guard commandant, at (202) 267-0984. Or visit the Web site http://www.uscg.mil/mailform/dist-mail.html.


    Copyright 2001, The Arizona Republic. All rights reserved. This article graciously provided courtesy of The Arizona Republic.