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Five weeks before the vote, ACP disavows its consultants, nixes independent environmental impact review

Environmental defense of Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan collapses

by Eric Jackson

It was supposed to be just another "greenwashing" session, this time with an environmental spokesperson for the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) appearing before the prestigious Sociedad Audubon de Panama.

But something was odd about the September 14 meeting at the Parque Natural Metropolitano. First, in the announcement about the meeting, the group went to pains to indicate that hosting the ACP didn't imply an endorsement of the ballot proposal that voters will decide on October 22. Then came an announcement that the original speaker, a lower middle management ACP figure, would be replaced by Oscar Vallarino, the former head of the National Association for the Conservation of Nature (ANCON), an environmentalist organization, who had joined the ACP environmental team a few years back, as the replacement.

Earlier on the 14th, The Panama News started to get emails about a startling turnabout on the environmental front of the grand national debate. The "yes" campaign, under barrages of criticism for presenting a mega-project to expand the Panama Canal without having done an environmental impact study, had responded for weeks that such a review would only be necessary if the ballot proposal is approved. Some of those pronouncements were made by Ligia Castro de Doens, the director of the Panama's National Environmental Authority (ANAM). But now it was revealed that weeks earlier, on July 27, the ACP had issued a decree, supposedly based upon its rule making power under 1999 legislation, that declared that "to develop projects in the area that can affect the environment [and] to approve environmental impact studies that are required for authority projects ... are functions of the administrator."

In other words, ANAM had been cut out of the picture --- if the ballot proposal passes Alberto Alemán Zubieta will approve his own environmental impact study. Such promises as there were --- and they were paltry to begin with, given the nature of the environmental issues that would need to be studied in any serious process and the severe time constraints imposed by the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan --- had been effectively revoked.

To certain minds the conflict of interest doesn't negate a credible environmental study, but those minds generally belong to corporate lawyers, social Darwinists or fools. (Politicians might make the argument too, but they don't actually believe such things when they say them.) There arose howls of protest from environmental and anti-corruption activists. Former ANAM director Gonzalo Menéndez argued that the ACP's organic law doesn't give the canal authority the power to usurp the environmental authority's functions. "They attempt with unnatural and absurd legalisms to make us believe that there is no conflict of interest if the ACP does an environmental impact study and the same ACP approves it," he charged. He called it an attempt to jam the canal expansion plan through notwithstanding serious environmental problems inherent in it.

So that night this reporter took a taxi over to the Parque Metropolitano headquarters, and immediately noticed two things. First, much of the usual Audubon crowd, including those who had written newspaper columns or made statements questioning the canal expansion proposal, was absent. The ACP and its consultants were there with notebooks and a video camera, but no Oscar Vallarino --- on this night the authority would be represented by its environmental director, Daniel Muschett.

It was one of those standard ACP PowerPoint presentations, unamended to acknowledge things like the canal pilots' safety concerns or the announcement that there would be no independent environmental review at any step of the process.

Then things got weird.

"It doesn't affect the quality of potable water," Muschett said of the plan. It was a questionable statement, but in line with previous ACP claims.

When it comes to the intrusion of salt water, the proposed new set of locks "functions the same as the Gatun Locks --- the same system as used for 92 years." He cited the study by the Dutch firm WL Delft Hydraulics to claim that salinity would be "within international standards" (for what he didn't say).

Say what? Did Muschett think he was speaking to someone else? Maybe to some illiterates ever so grateful for an envelope with $35 the president just handed them, and disposed to agree with anything? Maybe a PRD or CAPAC meeting? He was addressing a highly educated audience largely composed of sophisticated environmental activists, and he had just said some clearly absurd things.

Locks with water saving basins that move ships between lower salt water bodies and higher fresh water bodies make the fresh water brackish at an increased rate than do regular locks because while the upper chamber of a standard lock may have brackish water toward the bottom, it's filled with fresh water coming from the above, while a chamber using a water saving basin will fill partly with water from the lake but also partly with brackish water from the basins. Thus the chamber's salt content, which will mix with lake water when the gate between the lock and the lake is opened, will be higher than that of the top chamber of an ordinary lock.

DHI, the ACP's Danish consultants who were hired to study the Delft studies, acknowledged the increased salt intrusion created by locks with water saving basins and illustrated the process with the following graphic, with the different colors in the "WSE" column representing the salt levels of water into the basins:

As the final Delft study put it:

The salt concentration of the water in the water saving basins is, generally, also higher than the water in the adjacent higher lock, causing less dilution of the water in the receiving lock chamber. The effect of water saving basins is thus a greater inflow of salt water into Gatun Lake.

*     *     *

One difference also to be mentioned is that the future third lane bypasses Miraflores Lake. At present, Miraflores Lake acts as a salt water buffer between Miraflores Locks and Gatun Lake and damps off the salt concentration variations in Pedro Miguel Locks. This damping effect will not occur in the future Post-Panamax Locks.

The Delft report --- the final of several, as the the ACP kept sending new locks configurations to the company to analyze, dated July of 2005 but stamped as received by the ACP in November of last year --- represented the salt intrusion through the proposed new locks in the following chart, to which The Panama News has added the letters A through E above the graphs for clarity:

The dark green bars are the minimum salt intrusion into Gatun Lake, the tiny blip on chart A as it is now, the three sets of bars in chart B as it would be without any mitigation using the water saving basins to different extents. The light bars next to the dark green represent the maximum salt intrusion into the lake. Charts C, D and E represent salt intrusion using various mitigation strategies. The problem is, the mitigation method chosen is "flushing" --- the spilling of fresh water from the lake through the locks to reduce salt concentration, which both slows the locks' operation down and more importantly defeats the basins' water saving purpose. Note the .50 ppt level on the charts as an important threshold --- though much less salty than sea water, at that level water becomes too salty for human consumption. That's why, for example, decades ago the old Panama Canal Company was obliged to move the water intake for the Miraflores water treatment plant from Miraflores Lake, which is now so brackish that a number of marine species call it home, to Culebra Cut.

In all of their public statements and documents meant for public consumption, the ACP, Torrijos administration and "yes" campaigns have maintained that with the water savings basins, it will take only 51 million gallons of fresh water to get a post-Panamax ship through the canal, as opposed to the 52 million gallons for each transit through the present locks. However, those figures don't take into account water to be used for flushing.

It has thus been this reporter's practice of late to take every opportunity to ask ACP or "yes" campaign technical spokespeople how many gallons of water, on an average that includes the water used for flushing, it would really take to get a ship through the new locks.

A weird question, you may think? But consider that the farmers along western Colon province's Rio Indio believe that the new locks will need more water than is admitted and thus the time will come when the ACP will want a new dam that floods them off of their land. For expressing this belief, President Torrijos has been quite emphatic in attacking their intelligence, ethics and patriotism. The "yes" campaign has engaged in a long campaign of similar vilification against those who argue that the canal expansion project will end up creating water shortages in the Panama - San Miguelito - Colon metro area, which takes its water from the canal. These numbers may seem arcane, but the honor of public figures humble and mighty, and the lives of countless Panamanians, could be affected by them.

At an USMA forum, the "yes" campaign's René Orillac, an engineer who presented himself as an expert on the expansion project, gave one of these "isn't that a strange question" eye rolls and said "I don't know." At the Excedra Books readers' club former environmental protection director Stanley Heckadon ducked the question, claiming that hydrologist Robert Stallard --- who has published nothing on the subject and who has not answered this reporter's emailed queries --- told him that there's no problem. So would Muschett be strike three (not counting the times the question was submitted other than face-to-face)?

But on this evening Muschett was not to indulge in a variation on the standard brushoff. Instead he dropped a bombshell.

"The contracts with Delft were not the only ones," Muschett began. He alluded to the DHI study, which supported Delft's assessment of the salt water intrusion problem. "Delft overstated salt intrusion," he charged, and said that the ACP had hired yet another company, Rockwell Associates, which had concluded that Delft was wrong.

No Rockwell Associates study on salt water intrusion has been published by the ACP during the months-long canal expansion debate.

Now, Muschett claimed, according to new studies that haven't been made public "salt does not get into the basins." "The water does not mix between the basin and the chamber," he most bizarrely added. Flushing, Muschett said, is "another scenario."

So there you have it --- five weeks ahead of the referendum, the ACP has disavowed the crucial environmental studies that were supposed to have supported the Torrijos - Alemán Zubieta Plan. We shall see if they produce a Rockwell Associates study before the vote, but at first glance it appears that as soon as this reporter and environmentalists got ahold of the salt water intrusion studies and noted the discrepancies between those and the "yes" campaign's propaganda, the ACP went shopping for new "experts" to undermine those whose opinions they had misrepresented.



Also in this section:
ACP disavows its consultants' studies, nixes independent environmental review
PRD group keeps Endara from speaking

On the referendum campaign trail
Panama News Briefs

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