Monday, November 01, 2010

Letter to the Panama News 29-10-2010

Bells and whistles won't fix serious shortcomings

Bert G. Shelton

As construction of the new locks for the Panama Canal proceeds, publicity continues to praise the project's choice of "superior" gates --- and steers clear of noting the pitfalls inherent to the system's overall layout.

No matter how superior a modern-day component is --- as compared to one available 100 years ago --- better parts cannot make a poorer lock layout outperform a better lock layout since all layouts can similarly benefit from those same components.

The problem with the expansion plan's lock layout is that it is based on a 1930's plan that was long ago found to be deficient. Furthermore, modifications to that plan for this project only make things worse.

In the 1930's, the US began construction of a "third set", or lane, of locks. The 1930's lane addition was to have three steps at each end of the canal, like the canal's original two lanes have, but this addition was to have longer and wider chambers for larger ships.

Before the US ceased working on their 1930s project with the onset of WWII, excavations into rock for the planned locks' three contiguous steps at the canal's Caribbean entrance had been practically completed. In contrast, at the Pacific entrance only the two contiguous lower steps --- those effectively parallel to today's Miraflores Locks --- were nearly completed. Excavation of the independent uppermost lock step alongside the present day Pedro Miguel Locks never got started.

As a result of the war, perspectives regarding future canal transit needs changed and new concerns, such as how major projects like this one impact the environment and neighboring activities, caused the project to be put on ice for rethinking. At issue were 1) how many lanes should ultimately be targeted, 2) what maximum size ship should the addition handle, 3) how much operating water could ultimately be made available to it, and 4) what environmental or ecological issues would need to be overcome. The cost of attending each of those issues was, obviously, itself an issue requiring contemplation.

In addition to the Panama Canal Company's routine salinity measurement program, these new interests gave rise to more detailed environmental studies, such as those established by the Smithsonian Institute. Also, the US Army Corp of Engineers studied for many years the options for and issues with building a Sea Level Canal somewhere across the Isthmus. Ultimately, a multinational group of experts was brought together --- during the years the canal was operated jointly by the US and Panama --- and tasked with evaluating all issues and recommending the best course for a future canal or upgrade.

With its present Canal Expansion Plan it would appear that Panama has chosen to ignore concerns and recommendations and proceed with building the third lane much as it was planned in the 1930's.

This plan sticks to the 1930's plan in that its chambers will use the lock sites that the US blasted out. However, rather than blast out the uppermost Pacific end lock step next to today's Pedro Miguel Locks as originally planned, the top step is now to be contiguous to the lower two steps next to today's Miraflores Locks. That top step is to be connected to the Gatun Lake waterway by means of a dike built along the west bank of Miraflores Lake across known faults --- originally rendered harmless by the presence of that very small lake. This plan is very dangerous and puts the entire canal in jeopardy!

Plan promoters are intent on inaugurating this expansion on the Canal's 100-year anniversary in 2014.

However, that's an absurd reason for promoting and advancing a very wasteful, very damaging, and potentially dangerous system without ever having performed comparative assessments of other known lock layouts. Recognized layouts, that use operating procedures present and tested in today's Panama Canal and/or elsewhere, can readily be shown to save more water, transit more ships, be physically and operationally less complicated, require less maintenance, and cause far less damage to the environment.

Not only are the 1930's lock chambers too small for today's shipping needs and is the change in the top lock's location dangerous, the added circa 1870 water-saving tanks don't save enough to justify the cost and operating complexity they add, plus as employed they greatly increase ecological damage potential relative to the 1930's design. While project promoters claim otherwise, anyone with a modicum of technical prowess can independently confirm that salt intrusion into the lake will be many times more as compared to the 1930's plan, an increase that will undoubtedly confirm damage-to-sea-life studies.

From its inception, the Panama Canal Expansion Project has followed a technically and financially illogical path with respect to long term canal growth and profitability. Launched with its planned lock system predefined --- which is not acceptable for any engineering project, especially not a public works project --- this project has proceeded essentially unaltered ignoring all calls for independent review.

One major change that was made --- practically overnight --- was to add a third water-saving tank to each lock step and to expand the range of Gatun Lake's seasonal level fluctuations, seemingly done to quiet public objections to a planned watershed expansion that threatened the project's approval. Project outsiders have ever since been suspicious of that change as, not only does the added tank notably slow lock operations, the cargo capacity of ships using today's locks will seasonally be greatly reduce when the lake goes lower. Reports that preparations are afoot to expand the watershed, despite a law against so doing having been created to gain project approval, suggest this "change" was a ploy and not real.

Clearly there are significant short term financial benefits for someone other than the Republic of Panama and the canal's users, that are driving this unsavory plan forward.

Considering which companies have "won" the most lucrative of the project's contracts along with the questionable processes that were followed in awarding those contracts, it is doubtful that what's in the public's best interest has ever been included. This assessment is not so far-fetched if one considers how the entire country of Panama is now up for grabs for development of all its hydro-power and mineral reserves. Open-pit mining is to cover nearly 44% of this small country's surface area, and hydro-plants are planned for virtually all rivers, big and small, with 28 to be built on just one river! So much for Panama being an attractive tourism and retirement place. And, where are Panamanians to live?

With what's being built and how canal profits for many years to come are being tied up, not only will the Republic of Panama not see profit from what is done for a very long time, all of the canal's clients will pay too much for too little. What's more, the canal's future growth potential will be severely and permanently cut short by what's being built. On top of that, this plan's negative "secondary" impacts to its water resources will greatly reduce or eliminate the livelihoods of many who live near by or fish for a living. Per its present development plans, Panama is safeguarding nothing for its future generations.

Today's Panama Canal Expansion plan is nowhere near one that could, in all fairness, be considered sustainable. The only reason most believe the project is among the world's best-run projects is that the project's propaganda machine has told them so.

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