Leaking locks disrupt Panama Canal expansion
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Leaking locks disrupt Panama Canal expansion

The sight of waterfalls cascading out of a fissure in the new Panama Canal locks must have brought tears to the eyes of the embattled Panama Canal Authority (ACP) last August. The revelation that key components in the canal’s $5.3 billion expansion are seriously faulty has raised dozens of important questions, not least concerning safety, but the ACP is being far from transparent.

Following a high-charged national referendum when pride and patriotism ran high, work to double the canal’s carrying capacity began in 2007. Now 95 percent complete, the project includes the construction of new access channels and locks to accommodate ‘Post-Panamax’ vessels, including giant super-tankers.

Corruption, disputes and scandal

A variety of setbacks has since plagued the project. Costly disputes with contractors and unions, alleged corruption scandals, and falling shipping traffic in the wake of the global financial meltdown of 2008 – all have damaged the ACP’s operation and reputation.

The crack in the sill of the new Cocoli locks was detected during their testing and the international consortium in charge of its construction, Grupo Unidos por el Canal (GUPC), say it was caused by a design flaw. They claim that insufficient rebar rods were inserted into the walls. Photos of core samples, however, reveal an irregular honeycombed texture that is likely the result of improper concrete mixing.

A core sample from the leaking Cocoli lock. Source: The Panama News

A core sample from the leaking Cocoli lock. Source: The Panama News

Nonetheless, the ACP appears to have accepted GUPC’s diagnosis – and their questionable solution. Starting in January 2016, extra rebar rods will be inserted into the lock wall and fresh concrete injected into the crack.

Why is an apparent construction flaw being touted as a design problem? According to analysis by Eric Jackson, editor of The Panama News:

If it is properly diagnosed as a bad concrete pour and properly resolved by tearing out the faulty concrete and redoing the work, that would cause major new delays and probably bankrupt construction companies…

Calling it a design flaw allows for a quicker, cheaper and shorter-lasting fix and for those responsible for the bad concrete to litigate with designers in an attempt to pass off some of the costs of their mistake to others.

Jackson speculates that the collapse of the heavily government-subsidised Spanish construction company Sacyr – one of GUPC’s members along with Italy’s Salini-Impregilo, Belgium’s Jan de Nul, and Panama’s Constructora Urbana – could bring down Spain’s fragile economy. The timing could not be worse for the incumbent conservative government with general elections scheduled for 20 December.

Cracks in the concrete

Since the discovery of the leak, news of further flaws surfaced via a memo by a US-British-Dutch consulting firm working for GUPC. According to a report published by La Estrella on 11 November, the memo cites the discovery of two new cracks in the sill. Elsewhere, unsubstantiated rumours abound of yet more construction flaws.

For its part, the APC has been reticent in divulging official information about the problems. It has thus far resisted calls to make public the GUPC’s analysis along with a technical evaluation made by the Panama Technological University (UTP). On 18 November, it did release a remarkably cheesy Youtube video entitled ‘Panama Canal Expansion Progress Update’. The video makes reference to the testing of the locks, but not their incontinence, assuring viewers that construction is very much on track:

“It continues at full speed… the countdown is on…”

Later in the month, during the distraction and revelry of Panama’s Independence Day celebrations, Black Friday, and US Thanksgiving, the ACP quietly admitted to Reuters that the scheduled April completion date may not be met.

Big bucks

Some journalists have noted a remarkable lack of rigor in international media coverage, both of the fissures and the project generally. In a feature for the Panama News, Kevin Harrington-Shelton suggests that the reason may be that a timely completion of the expansion is essential for the profitable launch of new international port facilities and other global infrastructure built in its anticipation. Nations and companies are invested to the tune of $60 billion, he says.

Thus the ACP may be experiencing considerable pressure to resolve its problems as quickly as possible, but this does not justify the implementation of second rate solutions – or the adoption of a public relations strategy that obfuscates more than it clarifies.

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