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Volume 17, Number 13
December 20, 2011
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nature special

Also in this section:
Star-forming "snow angel"
The technical problems with the Panama Canal expansion
2011 World Malaria Report
A whole new meaning for "thinking on your feet"
Heavy rains, shifting into dry season (we can only hope)
Watch out for holiday poison hazards (PDF)
European satellite maps sea ice
Sloths: life in the arboreal slow lane
Audubon Society of Panama Christmas Bird Count
IGFA Great Marlin Race adds to scientific knowledge

Opting for a worthwhile expansion of the Panama Canal
by the Gatun Lake Defense Committee

Successful studies have been conducted independently over the last decade focusing on solving a "dilemma" generally considered unsolvable, which was to increase the capacity of the Panama Canal without causing unacceptable levels of damage to the environment.

Recommendations that arose from a multinational study referred to as the Panama Canal Tripartite Commission, carried out between 1985 and 1993, appear to have been downplayed in order to expedite obtaining loans and initiating work on today's expansion project. In addition to identifying how to best allocate freshwater resources, the Tripartite Commission highlighted that elements of nature must be fully taken into consideration if the intent is to produce a truly effective expanded canal.

Evidence is mounting that these recommendations have been ignored.

The widespread and mistaken belief that environmental protection is synonymous with reductions in profitability was allowed to drive decisions that have resulted in the highly inefficient, risk-creating and needlessly destructive expansion currently underway that threatens the very future of the Panama Canal and life within, around, and beyond the shores of Panama.

That locks of adequate capacity, which also overcame environmental and seismic issues, had not already been identified --- because no effort had actually been taken to find any in the previous century --- led to the erroneous assumption that studies to develop a lock system that fit the bill would be fruitless.

Consequently, an appropriate system was not developed for this expansion, which has led to the problems the project faces today and will create even worse ones if it progresses and is completed as planned.

Three overriding reasons why the current plan should not progress unchanged

1.) The new system's efficiency is extremely poor

The expanded canal's new locks could be far more efficient in their use of water than what is achievable with the arrangement being built. Fewer components could be employed to ultimately handle more transits. Those added transits can be accomplished with fewer operations and using much less water. A more efficient system would, consequently, be less costly to use and also to maintain.

Through assessments of the project that were performed independently it has been found that obtaining greater efficiency out of locks is not a matter of cost. It is, instead, a matter of how the system is arranged and in what sequence ships are transited. Achieving the lowest water-use per transits --- while minimizing the time expended manipulating water and guiding ships in and out of chambers, so as to permit more transits over time --- requires assessing various lock layouts and transit sequence combinations to identify the most effective system.

More effectively configured and operated locks are comprised of the same components found in less effective configurations, so the cost difference between more and less effective layouts is mainly determined by how many of each component a lock configuration contains.

In effect, the system's cost as a function of the number of vessels transited can be significantly reduced if a more effectively configured and operated lock layout is used instead of the one that has been chosen. Lower water-use can be achieved in less time with relatively less equipment.

2.) The risk of losing the canal to a catastrophic earthquake is needlessly augmented

The plan to build a single-lane lock unit at the Pacific entrance to the canal --- together with a channel that bypasses Miraflores Lake --- results in a Pacific lock system that greatly raises the potential for catastrophically losing the canal. That small lake straddles the known-to-be-active Pedro Miguel fault-line and was included 100 years ago in the canal system in order to:

  • set the top-most lock step, known as Pedro Miguel, on more stable ground between hills leading into the south end of the Gaillard (or Culebra) Cut, and to, thereby,

  • lessen the chance of losing Gatun Lake to a major earthquake at that location.

Reported through WikiLeaks, and not by the project itself, a presumably commissioned seismic study that concluded near the end of August 2007 apparently indicates that the Pacific entrance to the canal is in imminent danger of experiencing an earthquake of magnitude 7 to 8 on the Richter Scale.

Whereas the cross-section of channel behind the Pedro Miguel locks --- which hold back the waters of Gatun Lake --- is limited to the width of the locks themselves, the layout of the planned new locks adds a dike that effectively parallels that active fault-line for about 2.5 miles, with the new Pacific locks continuing along that same line. In other words, a lot of frontage is being built for a quake to rupture and cause the loss of Gatun Lake.

Furthermore, the water-use reducing tanks of those new locks apparently will be built across an active splinter of that fault system, which increases their chance of being destroyed.

The chosen layout is of significant concern considering that the risk of catastrophic loss could be greatly reduced if the new locks were positioned, like the original ones, at each end of a sacrificial lake --- such as is Miraflores Lake --- and away from the unstable ground near that fault-line.

Independent assessments show that locks arranged in that manner would operationally be more cost competitive, in addition to being less risky.

3.) System's layout places both oceans' coastal species at unnecessarily high risk of extinction

When operated to transit the number of ships needed to generate sufficient income to pay for the expansion, the intrusion of excessive quantities of salt through the chosen locks is a virtual certainty. Yet, the project includes no salt-mitigation plans.

When enough saltwater has intruded to spread across the Isthmus of Panama --- with a denser, saltier water layer spreading unseen across the bottom of Gatun Lake and of the canal's channels --- the life of coastal creatures of both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean will be at risk. Those creatures will be able to use that saltwater pathway to cross the Isthmus and meet.

This is something that all nations sharing those coastlines, as well as every seafood-lover on the planet, should be very concerned about.

That eventuality can economically be kept from happening by choosing more appropriately configured locks of comparable cost that also address the previous issues, described in points 1 and 2, far better.

Failure to follow the process outlined by the unratified tripartite commission

While it is claimed that the Panama Canal Expansion project now underway has followed the recommendations set forth in the final report of the UN's Panama Canal Tripartite Commission's study, steps taken by the project do not substantiate that claim.

In brief, the Tripartite Commission's effort compared single- and two-lane lock options for three ship sizes as to their cost and water needs, and also commented on the option of a sea-level canal, as well as on building railroads. Lock configurations and transiting sequences evaluated at the time were based on those already existing in Panama and on those of the earlier expansion attempt the US never completed.

Besides concluding that a single-lane 150,000 DWT (+/-8300 TEU) lock set would be the best of those evaluated --- and that one for 200,000 DWT (+/- 11000 TEU) would be marginally feasible --- that report clearly states that the feasibility of options is contingent on the assessment of geomorphology and environmental issues.

The only action that the current expansion project appears to have taken in response to the Tripartite Commission's recommendations has been to add "recycling" tanks to the locks being built, and has promoted that addition as justification for exceeding the maximum recommended vessel size cited in that study's report.

The problem is that what adding tanks is claimed to accomplish has not been demonstrated, either technically or financially.

While the volume of water used per transit can be reduced by using "recycling" tanks, tanks are relatively more expensive, less efficient, and slower to operate than other proven water-use reducing options.

The ACP's own declaration that the tanks will be bypassed as often as possible in order to gain transits, serves to highlight the fact that significant additional time is consumed in operating them.

It is surmised that fewer transits will be performed during the dry-season than during the rainy-season. What is more, the amount of cargo transited via the original locks will drop precipitously in the dry-season given that Gatun Lake's level will be allowed to drop up to 4 feet below its present-day minimum in order to keep the new locks operating. A lot of lost cargo capacity will result from 4 ft less draft per 36 ships a day.

With respect to the environment, the project's own reports say that salt will intrude through the locks when they are operated, with "recycling" tanks increasing intrusion. Yet, rather than incorporate methods to reduce or mitigate it before damages occur, the project plans only to monitor the salt that enters and see how it goes.

What if it does not go well? How will a problem-in-the-making be corrected? The project's proposed plan to monitor salt-intrusion is equivalent to ignoring the issue.

Per what was recently revealed about the potential severity of the seismic threat the Panama Canal faces, the design chosen for its expansion --- which exacerbates risks to the canal and its neighbors --- suggests that issue has been ignored as well.

Although the best way to address these environmental damage issues and earthquake risks --- while at the same time minimizing the amount of water needed per transit --- is to employ locks that are arranged to cost-effectively take all those considerations into account, much effort and money has been expended to convince everyone that no better solutions than the one now being constructed exists.

If the project were being done right, it would sell itself.

One can be certain that many times more money has been spent building the image of the Panama Canal Expansion project --- as the most well-planned and best-managed project ever --- than it would have cost to perform a proper lock selection process in the first place.

Finally, if proper engineering had been done at the outset, the project would have in all likelihood avoided the vast majority of the complications that caused costly delays during the lock bidding process, and construction would probably be much closer to completion.

Unresolved questions regarding due diligence processes

Prior to the national referendum in Panama that resulted in the expansion's approval, the ACP was required to hold public forums. At those events open discussions of environmental or technical issues at the core of today's problems were blatantly blocked. However, institutions financing the ventures --- especially with public funds subject to social and environmental impact requirements, such as those stewarded by development banks --- were counted on to uncover and address anomalies, by way of their due diligence efforts.

However, citizen action groups in and outside of Panama, such as those forming part of the Alianza ProPanama coalition, are discovering --- through their efforts to obtain an independent review of the Panama Canal expansion project --- that even financial institutions with considerable public funds invested in the project appear to be either unwilling or unable to breach that blockade, or have simply been taken in by its magnitude, empty assurances and hype.

For example, inquires regarding the project today via the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB) are referred back to the ACP itself --- and not to an independent assessor --- highlighting why that institution's due diligence report appears to simply restate what, regrettably, amounts to propaganda that cannot be substantiated that was published by the ACP and repeated to the public during the referendum.

While the IDB's due diligence report does note that the intrusion of salt will be monitored once the new locks become operational, it does not say what will be done if and when a problem becomes apparent.

The IDB's report also makes no mention of seismic study results, such as the one exposed via WikiLeaks, that predicts an earthquake with a magnitude between 7 and 8 on the Richter Scale could occur at any moment at the Pacific end of the canal. While the veracity of what that leak reports has been unofficially confirmed, the project has never declared that such a study --- one that would be expected for a project of this nature --- was even commissioned, much less its findings. In fact, some studies that were not exactly favorable to the current expansion plan have reportedly become difficult to access, or have been removed from the project's website.

The questions are:

  1. does the reported seismic study exist and are its findings what WikiLeaks indicated, and

  2. was the IDB informed and, if so, what did it do with that information?

Considering that an earthquake of such magnitude would in all likelihood cause a breach at today's Pedro Miguel locks, it would be logical to expect that some sort of gated barrier --- just inland of those locks and capable of surviving such an event --- would be a pre-requisite to funding the expansion. It makes no sense to build an addition that presumably can survive the expected earthquake, but not make appropriate upgrades to the existing system in order to insure against the loss of the whole enterprise.

Not only should the findings of that "unrevealed" study have been addressed more appropriately by the expansion project, those findings should also have been incorporated in the design of all the high-rises built in Panama City since the end of 2007.

If that seismic study actually says what it supposedly says, keeping it out the news is making high-rise developers very rich, while putting great numbers of Panama City residents involuntarily in grave danger, in addition to putting their investments at risk.

Another question concerning due diligence assessment of the expansion project centers on impacts to the public in areas beyond what has "officially" been designated as being impacted by it.

Considering that the Bridge of the Americas --- a key and heavily-transited Pacific Side canal crossing --- must be removed for post-Panamax ships to be able to access the expanded canal and will need replacing, why would that element not be considered part of the project, and why is it not figured into the loan?

The same goes for the canal crossing on the Atlantic Side. It now goes through the locks at sea-level and will cost little to close, but a replacement to insure a seamless transition for its users will not be inconsequential.

Revisions to canal crossings received no press prior to the canal referendum, and attracted little attention as citizens actively following the project focused on even more serious and very permanent concerns centering on the expansion of the canal's watershed.

That issue threatened the success of the referendum and was, essentially, pulled off the table by "changes" to the project in order to win the vote. That the expansion's budget never included money for expanding the watershed in the first place, is perceived by many to indicate it was a diversion created to win the vote by creating the impression of responding to public concern. Lack of response to citizen concerns since the referendum would appear to support that perception.

The plan that was portrayed to permit eliminating the need for watershed expansion, was the addition of a third "recycling" tank at each lock step and to increase the range of Gatun Lake's fluctuation.

Interestingly, although a 1/3 of a billion dollars worth of "recycling" tanks was added to the project along with untold millions needed for modifying docks, the older locks, and other facilities throughout Gatun Lake plus for shoring-up dams, the project's price-tag did not change going into the referendum. This appeared to have been accepted without challenge. The fact that no comments as to how that change would affect the balance between salt intrusion and its elimination only served to increase doubts as to the credibility of the "revised" plan.

Considering how much the dropping of Gatun Lake's level below its traditional low-water level is going to reduce cargo carrying capacity through the original locks and how having to use the side-tanks is going to reduce the number of vessels transiting the new locks, it won't come as a surprise when it is "decided" that the watershed must be expanded after all.

Thus, strong justifications exist for suspicions being voiced by many that the project never had any intention of abiding by any of the Tripartite Commission's recommendations.

That none of these anomalies were detected during due diligence processes performed by experienced financial institutions, raises concern that should be urgently addressed particularly within development banks bound by social and environmental impact considerations.

A lock system addressing the combined environmental, seismic and water-saving needs

Just as plans had to be re-engineered a century ago when the Panama Canal was first built, the same has to occur today to responsibly resolve the current dilemma with its expansion. The vast majority of the work performed to-date by this project --- which is far behind schedule as it is --- can be used as a foundation for an alternative lock system that meets the combined environmental, seismic and water-saving needs of this project.

Based on the fact that Miraflores Lake --- which was originally added to the canal system to "bridge" the Pedro Miguel fault-line --- not only serves to reduce seismic risk, but also has proven to be effective in disrupting the progress of salt from the Pacific Ocean to the level of Gatun Lake, the approach taken with the alternative system recommended here for expanding the Panama Canal is to not bypass it.

Miraflores Lake also makes it possible to cut in half the amount of water needed to lift or to lower ships at the Pedro Miguel locks; therefore, this alternative system for the Panama Canal Expansion includes such a lake at both ends of the waterway.

Considering further that the Pedro Miguel locks of the Panama Canal were long ago publicly demonstrated to be capable of lifting or lowering ships using 25 percent of the water that is routinely used in operating them, a similar lock configuration is adopted for this recommended alternative.

Whereas the locks being built now at both ends for this expansion are to have three steps --- which themselves serve to reduce transit water-use to one-third --- and beside each step there are to be three tanks for further reducing transit water-use to 40 percent of that one-third (thus to 13.33 percent), the alternative lock system described here --- which would include two updated larger versions of the Pedro Miguel locks at each end of the canal with a Miraflores-type lake at each end, as well, separating the two locks --- would use 12.5 percent the water, based on an equivalent calculation.

Obtaining 12.5 percent water-use with this two-lane alternative requires changing the transit direction through each chamber with every ship, while the planned single-lane locks the lane can never be reversed if it is not to use more than 13.33 percent.

Obviously, the planned single-lane locks will have to be routinely reversed, which expends additional water, so the water-use to compare to is somewhat higher than 13.33 percent.

If the planned locks should transit 12 ships one way one day and 12 ships the other the next --- 12 ships a day being the number of transits the project originally declared that its system would handle --- the system's water-use will rise to 15.56 percent. If, instead, 6 ships enter each end each day, pass each other in transit, and exit the other end that same day, the planned system's water-use will rise to 17.78 percent.

Thus, this two-lane alternative can, with respect to those two operating options, transit 5 ships with the water with which the planned locks transit 4, or 4 ships with the water the planned locks transit 3.

To top that, if the alternative locks are designed such that two water-saving tanks are added to each unit --- either when built or at a future date --- then this two-lane alternative's water-use would drop to 8.33 percent. Thus, with the water the planned locks transit 1 ship, the alternative locks could transit 2.

Although a lock system with 8 chambers that are 16 percent taller than those of the planned system (6 chambers and 18 water-saving tanks) may cost more, the costs of these two alternatives cannot be wildly different because 18 tanks and accompanying pipes and valves will definitely cost more than one chamber and could even cost more than two.

But there is more to deciding what system to go with than just what each costs to build.

In addition to helping reduce water-use, this two-lane alternative's Miraflores-like lakes also provide a proven means for controlling salt-intrusion, as well as a method for reducing the risk of losing Gatun Lake as a result of a catastrophic earthquake produced by the Pedro Miguel fault.

Furthermore, because of its two lanes, a chamber temporarily out of commission only reduces this alternatives post-Panamax ship throughput, whereas transits through a one-lane system come to a halt if there is a problem at any chamber.

For relatively little additional cost this two-lane alternative has capacity for nearly twice the transits of the planned single-lane, which means transit slow-downs that occur during an overhaul of the original locks can be much reduced. Conversely, the planned single-lane lock addition does not have the extra capacity to help reduce overhaul slow-downs and minimize the dip in the canal's revenue stream.


There is no technically or financially valid reason with respect to the needs of Panama and its canal's clients for the Panama Canal Expansion project to have fixated on the single-lane locks selected.

What is planned:

  • Costs too much for the income it will generate,

  • Requires too much operating water for the service it provides,

  • Adds unnecessary and catastrophic risks that are very detrimental to everyone associated,

  • Puts world-important ecology of two oceans on a path to extinction for no good reason, and

  • Creates a probable need for expanding the canal's watershed, needlessly devastating lives and more ecology.

Another myth has been disseminated that faster transits times through the planned single-lane justify its selection, rather than a two-lane alternative like the one described above.

The reality is that the difference in transit time, if at all slower, can be no more than a couple of hours in a process that today takes between 27 to 36 hours to complete. That variation seems to occur with seasonal changes in the amount of rainfall. The most likely reason dry season transits seem to take longer to complete today is that another, unadvertised, water-saving technique the original locks have is being used.

Transits through the new locks will undoubtedly take longer with the bigger ships, but not just because of their size. The fact is that the side-tank water-saving approach tends to be even slower than those occasionally used water-saving methods of today's Panama Canal.

Causing ships to have to take weeks to go the long way around the tip of South America just to save one a couple of hours navigating across Panama, is absurd.

In order to make a profit comparable to what the two-lane alternative --- handling so many more ships so much more efficiently --- as described above could make, the toll charged to transit the locks being built would have to be significantly higher. This project is not doing its clients any favors by building in less efficiency.

Furthermore, with regard to expectations of a tremendous upswing in the movement of the world's biggest ships, the relatively low transit capacity, questionable reliability, and higher cost of the expanded canal as now planned does not bode well for all the ports being expanded worldwide.

The only reason imaginable for the single-lane lock choice is that it allowed multi-billion-dollar port expansions around the globe to be kicked-off as quickly as possible. Resolving issues long since identified regarding the Panama Canal, but never taken on in earnest, would have represented "wasted time" in such a scenario. So would have addressing what is best for the Panama Canal, its clients, Panama's people, and the environment.

Thus, no truly justifiable reason exists for adding single-lane locks to the Panama Canal.

Thankfully, the Panama Canal Expansion can still be salvaged relatively unscathed at this point from what amounts to a monumental scam if those in control of its funding, plus citizens, consumers, its clients and stockholders, demand it.


Also in this section:
Star-forming "snow angel"
The technical problems with the Panama Canal expansion
2011 World Malaria Report
A whole new meaning for "thinking on your feet"
Heavy rains, shifting into dry season (we can only hope)
Watch out for holiday poison hazards (PDF)
European satellite maps sea ice
Sloths: life in the arboreal slow lane
Audubon Society of Panama Christmas Bird Count
IGFA Great Marlin Race adds to scientific knowledge

Find the boat of your dreams through Evermarine

© 2011 by Eric Jackson
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