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Houseboats with flaw recalled

Probe of Lake Powell deaths leads to action

The Coast Guard has issued a mandatory nationwide recall for houseboats with rear exhaust vents linked to more than 100 carbon monoxide poisonings and at least seven deaths at Lake Powell since 1994.

Six manufacturers, including the country's two largest, already have agreed to voluntarily recall boats with the design flaw, which allows carbon monoxide to build up near swim platforms on the backs of the houseboats and overcome swimmers in the water and passengers on board.

"This is what I have been looking for all along," said Dr. Robert Baron, who headed a federal investigation into some deaths at Lake Powell, where the problem was first discovered. "I feel we will finally remove the poisonous exhaust from where people recreate on these boats."

The Coast Guard began issuing recall notices Feb. 23 to manufacturers that had not responded to a Dec. 21 notification of the defect.

"I'm hoping that the impact will be that they enjoy the lake more safely," Kayci Collins, acting superintendent of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, said of Lake Powell visitors.

"This has reminded all of us that carbon monoxide by virtue of gasoline-powered engines is going to be there, and there are design elements of certain boats that make the situation particularly dangerous, but we have to be on guard with our behavior. Don't disassemble CO detectors in a houseboat. . . . We just need to be vigilant."

Collins said most of the 60 manufacturers contacted by the National Park Service responded long ago and took care of the problem. But there is no way to be sure that every private boat on Lake Powell that needs to be fixed has been taken care of, she said, adding that it can be difficult to contact the owners.

"Some boats have as many as 26 owners," she said. "Probably the best thing for anyone to do is get in touch with their manufacturer and determine if they've got a boat of the design that is particularly dangerous."

Concessions operator Aramark owns hundreds of houseboats that it rents to customers during the summer months, including more than 200 at the north end of the lake at Bullfrog Marina and Hall's Crossing.

But when the design flaw was detected late last summer, only three of Aramark's boats were found to have the problem, and they were quickly removed from the fleet, Collins said.

Dan Cole, Aramark's general manager of boat rental for the north end of the lake, said Friday there was no decrease in rental activity following the disclosure of the problems on some boats last year, and he does not believe there will be one this summer.

"We're trying to get out the message that our boats don't have the problem and that simple precautions" can avoid any hazards, Cole said.

Only half of Aramark's boats even have generators, he said.

"Understanding and knowledge is always important. We've now put up some signs for the Park Service that warn of potential carbon monoxide poisoning," Cole said.

The poisonings at Lake Powell remained unconnected for a decade until federal officials linked the carbon monoxide to the drowning last summer of two Colorado boys there.

A subsequent investigation by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the Interior Department found seven deaths and 74 serious injuries at Lake Powell in the past decade were caused by carbon monoxide concentrated at the rear of houseboats.

Investigators found that nearly a quarter of the 3,000 houseboats on the lake contained the potentially fatal flaw: a notch below the swim platform where the generator vented odorless, colorless carbon monoxide gas.

Researchers also found evidence of such poisonings at Lake Cumberland in Kentucky and Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada line.

Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., who pushed for a recall in December and also called for congressional hearings on the design flaw, still plans to call for hearings despite the Coast Guard's efforts.

Ken Dixey of Parker, Colo., the father of the two boys who died last summer at Lake Powell, agreed the hearings should take place.

"What the Coast Guard is doing sounds like a temporary fix," he said. "If we have the hearings, hopefully we could have a permanent fix, so that what is coming out of the generator exhaust isn't so deadly."


E-mail: zman@desnews.com