Government & Politics

Hawley pursues new safety requirements for duck boats after Table Rock Lake tragedy

Sen. Josh Hawley has introduced legislation that would establish new safety requirements for duck boats following the tragedy on Table Rock Lake that claimed the lives of 17 people last year.

The bill is similar — though not identical — to legislation Hawley’s Democratic predecessor, former Sen. Claire McCaskill, introduced in the immediate aftermath of the incident on the lake last July.

The Missouri Republican’s bill would require the U.S. Coast Guard to implement new severe weather requirements for the operators of amphibious vehicles, an addition to the original bill.

Under the proposed regulation, duck boat operators would be required to check the National Weather Service forecast before setting off in their boats and be required to proceed to a safe harbor if the National Weather Service issues a watch or warning for wind speeds.

Last year’s tragedy took place when wind speeds on the lake exceeded 70 miles per hour.

Kenneth Scott McKee, the captain of the boat, faces federal criminal charges for a litany of alleged violations of current safety regulations. Ride the Ducks Branson, McKee’s employer, announced last month that it would not be conducting duck boat tours this summer.

Similar to McCaskill’s earlier legislation, Hawley’s bill calls for vessels to have reserve buoyancy that would help prevent a boat from sinking as it floods. Boats that don’t have that backup buoyancy would have to meet other safety requirements, such as removing overhead canopies prior to entering the water or installing a Coast Guard-approved canopy that does not keep passengers from escaping if the boat begins to sink.

Passengers would be required to wear personal flotation devices if a canopy is removed.

Other requirements for boats that don’t have the additional buoyancy include having at least four bilge alarms and electric bilge pumps capable of discharging large amounts of water from a boat.

Hawley’s bill also includes a new regulation that operators must inform passengers that seat belts may not be worn when the vehicle is on the water and that a crew member must check to make sure that each passenger has unbuckled.

Both Hawley’s bill and McCaskill’s bill draw heavily from recommendations the National Transportation Safety Board made after a 1999 duck boat accident in Arkansas killed 13 people.

“Missouri still mourns the lives lost on Table Rock Lake last summer. Sadly though, this tragedy wasn’t the first of its kind. For decades now, the NTSB has been making recommendations to make these rides safer, but Congress has failed to act,” Hawley said in a statement.

McCaskill’s bill failed to move forward in the final months of the last Congress and she suggested Hawley, the Missouri Republican who defeated her in a heated race, should take up the cause.

Within hours of McCaskill making that suggestion to The Kansas City Star in November, Hawley announced his intention to reintroduce her bill. Hawley is currently the sole sponsor of this bill, but his office is working on finding other lawmakers to serve as co-sponsors.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, a co-sponsor of McCaskill’s original bill, has not been asked by Hawley, but looks forward to reviewing the bill, according to an aide for Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s office previously told The Star that Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, was planning to reintroduce McCaskill’s bill and had reached out to Hawley to be the lead co-sponsor. Duckworth was not included on Hawley’s bill.

Washington correspondent Lindsay Wise contributed to this report.
Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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