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Marine experts criticize new federal water-safety bill

Marine safety experts are speaking out against an April 1 vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to change a provision of a law Congress adopted in 2010 to make water travel safer.

The House passed a Coast Guard reauthorization bill with a provision that will require only newly built ferries and other passenger boats, or vessels that undergo “a major conversion after Jan. 1, 2016,” and are operating in cold water to carry survival craft, such as life rafts, that “ensures that no part of an individual is immersed in water” when abandoning ship.

The provision, which is now being taken up by the Senate, differs from the 2010 law, which would have forced all boats — new or old, and operating in any water temperature — to be outfitted with out-of-the-water survival craft by 2015.

"Those seeking to repeal this requirement are not looking out for the best interest and lives of the public, particularly children, the elderly and the disabled," John Cullather, former staff director of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, said in a USA Today report.

Cullather helped draft the 2010 law before he retired.

Many passenger boats now are permitted to be outfitted with floats that do not keep survivors out of the water and do not protect against hypothermia.

Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Rep. Hunter Duncan, R-Calif., chairman of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, said Coast Guard studies have shown that requiring out-of-the-water survival craft for more boats would not save more lives.

Requiring more boats to carry such equipment, he said, "will lead to substantial costs on small businesses — many of which will need to have their vessels rebuilt to accommodate the space and loads necessary to carry such survival craft."

Coast Guard spokesman Carlos Díaz said the agency won't comment because the matter is "pending legislation."

In a report to Congress last August, the Coast Guard said it would cost existing vessels $154.3 million to replace life floats and other apparatus with out-of-the-water survival craft. The 10-year cost, which would include servicing and maintaining the added equipment, would be $350.2 million, the agency said.

The Coast Guard said 504 people were killed or missing in 224 "vessel casualties" and "immersion in the water" from 1991 through 2011. Nearly 90 percent of the casualties involved commercial fishing vessels, the agency said.

The House bill would require the secretary of the department in which the Coast Guard is operating to submit by Dec. 31, 2015, an updated review of the number of casualties for people with disabilities, children and the elderly as a result of immersion in water during the preceding 30 years; the risk of immersion to such people; and the effect that carrying survival craft has on vessel safety and survivability.

Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature falls below a normal 98.6 F to 95 or lower. Studies indicate that a person would be expected to become exhausted or unconscious after 15 minutes in water 32.5 F and die within 45 minutes. At 50 to 60 degrees, a person will lose consciousness within two hours and die within six hours.

The House bill was received by the Senate on April 2 and referred to its Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Click here for the full USA Today report.

Click here to read the full text of the House bill, particularly Section 314.

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