LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - The Delta Queen could be making its final voyages along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers if the old steamboat doesn't get a federal fire exemption later this year.
The 82-year-old ship is the last steam-powered paddle-wheeler in the country that still offers overnight trips.
Supporters of the Delta Queen are worried federal lawmakers might not grant an exemption that's needed because of its wooden super structure.
The vessel has been given nine exemptions since 1968, but the current one expires in November.
Rep. James Oberstar, a Democrat from Minnesota, has said he is concerned the ship poses a safety hazard. Oberstar is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
But Kentucky Congressman Ed Whitfield and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are defending the old boat.
"We're all concerned about safety, obviously," Whitfield said. "But the Delta Queen is going up and down the Mississippi and the Ohio - it's not like being on the ocean. If they have some problem, they can reasonably get to shore."
Jay Webster, director of engineering for the Delta Queen from 1994 to 2001, said the vessel actually is safer now than the last time Congress exempted it in 1998.
He oversaw major upgrades, including replacement of tons of wood with steel, installation of a new fire-detection system and sprinkler system.
"There's a lot of romanticism attached to the Delta Queen. It brings back memories of days gone by," said Whitfield, who has been on the vessel. "But more important than that, it stops in Paducah," which is in his district.
The Delta Queen's passengers visit Paducah's historic downtown area "and there are a lot of small businesses down there that are impacted by it," Whitfield said.
The steamboat also stops in Louisville and Henderson, Ky., among other places along the Ohio and Mississippi.
Proponents for the Delta Queen plan to offer an amendment granting an exemption as part of the Coast Guard reauthorization bill, which is scheduled for consideration on the House floor this week.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)