A bill putting legal regulations on selling compressed air or nitro gas intended for breathing under water is working its way through the legislature and was held in committee for amendment on Tuesday.
Sponsored by Sen. Louis Hill, the bill would make it illegal to sell diving air to anyone who is not certified to scuba dive. It would also require diving air compressors meet diving organization standards and undergo bi-annual inspections and certifications.
Health Commissioner Mercedes Dullum gave qualified support to the bill, saying it "will mean having safer diving practices in the Virgin Islands and improvement in public safety and health." But Dullum recommended amending the bill to clarify who is in charge of enforcement and who will issue fines for noncompliance.
Stephen Prosterman, diving supervisor for the University of the Virgin Islands Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, also gave qualified support for the measure, saying it might make some divers safer, especially on St. Croix, but urging the government to let industry organizations take care of equipment inspections.
St. Thomas Dive Club estimates over 60,000 dives with certified divers occur each month around St. Thomas, while others estimate about 25,000 dives per month on St. Croix, he said.
There are unsafe divers who are injured and require treatment, but not a great many, and professional dive shops are not the problem, he said. Prosterman, who is also a long-time technician at Schneider Regional Medical Center’s high pressure chamber for treating decompression sickness, added, "It is rare we get a dive patient that is diving with a dive shop."
In contrast to the large number of divers, Schneider sees maybe one or two decompression sickness cases per month.
"Medical personnel have witnessed many episodes, mainly on St. Croix, in which young persons, totally untrained in the physiology and safety procedures of diving have been offered compressed air for the purpose of breathing underwater in the attempt to fish for lobsters,” Prosterman said. “Often times this compressed air has been offered by their ‘employer,’ who is probably equally untrained in physiology and safety procedures."
The bill was held in committee for further amendment. Voting to hold the bill were Sens. Craig Barshinger, Usie Richards, Sammuel Sanes and Patrick Sprauve. Sens. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, Shawn-Michael Malone and Alvin Williams were absent.