Although it looks daunting, according to the contractor and the Canal de Panama, the leak problem is a “design problem” which can be corrected and will not delay the proposed opening date of the new locks. The filling of the locks was planned as a test and the test revealed the leak problem, so the new locks are now being drained so the problem can be fixed.
Steel Bars and Sealant
The GUPC construction consortium delivered an interim report last Friday to the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) giving details of the problem. The report took about a month to produce says La Prensa.
The leaks were caused by an apparent problem in the design of the locks, which did not have sufficient steel in the areas where there were problems.
Part of the contractor’s proposal to the ACP says the issue will be addressed by placing steel bars and a sealant in the problem areas.
To do the repairs all the water has to be drained from the locks, which have been undergoing testing. Drai ining the locks on the Pacific side started side week. Once those repairs are completed, work will start on the Atlantic side. The repairs are being made to both new locks to prevent future problems.
GUPC must now deliver a full report on the problem, and that information will be checked by experts in structural engineering at the Technological University of Panama as well as by foreign experts.
To Open in April
The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) said Wednesday it has received a long-awaited and highly anticipated preliminary update from the contractor behind the expansion of the Panama Canal on the causes and solution to a large crack that formed in one of chambers of the new lock complexes in August.
In a letter to the ACP from the consortium Grupo Unidos por el Canal, S.A. (GUPC), who is responsible for the design and construction of the Third Set of Locks, the consortium wrote that that the localized seepage was the result of insufficient steel reinforcement in the area while subjected to stress from extreme condition testing.
The crack and water seepage appeared in August in the concrete sill between the lower and middle chamber of the Canal’s expanded Pacific Locks during a testing phase of the new locks. After photos and video of the crack began circulating online, the ACP was quick to point out that the issue would not delay the delivery of the project, although it later backtracked saying that the risk of delay was likely as it awaited a formal report from GUPC.
The ACP reported Wednesday that after careful examination of all the other sills in both lock complexes, GUPC said that in addition to reinforcing the sill that presented the issue, they would also reinforce the first and second sill in the Cocoli Locks and the first three sills in the Atlantic-facing Agua Clara Locks as a preventative measure, though the sills have not experienced any of the same problems.
GUPC also verbally indicated that the completion date for the expansion project will remain April 2016 as planned, however, the ACP is awaiting formal confirmation from GUPC in the form of a comprehensive report which should also include the root cause of the detected filtrations, the ACP said.
The ACP on Wednesday reiterated that GUPC’s contract with the ACP clearly states that the group is responsible for all corrections that may be required, and that GUPC is obligated to ensure the long-term performance on all aspects of the construction of the locks and to complete the expansion project following the quality standards established in the contract.
The Third Set of Locks project, the main component of the $5.25 billion expansion project, involves the construction of new, bigger lock complexes on the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the Panama Canal, which will allow larger ships to transit and effectively double the capacity of the famous waterway.
The opening of the new locks was originally scheduled for 2014 to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of the existing Panama Canal, but cost overruns and delays have pushed the opening to its current date of April 2016.
The GUPC consortium is led by Spain’s Sacyr Vallehermoso, with Impregilo of Italy, Jan De Nul of Belgium and Constructura Urbana, SA (CUSA) of Panama. GUPC won the contract for the Third Set of Locks in 2009 after beating out two other company’s for the project. [GCAPTAIN]
The Elephant In The Room
Unlike the present Canal locks, there will be no engines or “mules” to assist navigation of the ships in the locks. Instead tug boats will be used at either end of the giant Post Panamax vessels. The elephant in the room that might well delay the opening of the new locks, even if the leak problem is corrected, is the assertion by the Panama Canal Pilots union that it may be unsafe to attempt to navigate the huge Post Panamax ships without assistance of the traditional engines.
Although the process works in models, and the pilots are practicing on simulators, the sure test will come once the locks are ready and before they are open to customers. The Canal is chartering a Post Panamax ship so that the pilots can practice before April.
Another concern of the pilots has to do with the relatively narrow Culebra Cut.
The pilots who guide ships through the Panama Canal fear that the navigation methods chosen to guide post-Panamax vessels into the new expanded locks and through the enlarged canal channels run higher risks of accidents than existing practices.
Under the existing method, two locomotives tow a Panamax ship, a vessel with capacity up to 4,500 TEUs, into the 100-year-old locks, which raise or lower the ship to the level of the water on the other side. Under the new method, the Panama Canal Authority plans to use two or more tugboats to push the much bigger post-Panamax vessels into the new locks — which should open to commercial traffic in 2016 — that will accommodate container ships with capacities of up to 13,000 20-foot-equivalent units. The Panama Pilots Association says the new method will take longer and cost more.
The pilots also worry that even though the expansion project has widened the canal’s narrowest passage at the Culebra Cut, it will still be too tight to accommodate the transit of two post-Panamax vessels at the same time. They say it runs the risk of causing a collision and blocking the canal.
“We can’t afford to make a mistake on this, and the way this is going, that’s exactly what we are going to do,” said Rainiero Salas, president of the Panama Canal Pilots’ Association.
“The point right now is: How do we overcome the deficiencies that the new system has to have a safe and efficient system that is going to be successful not only for the country, but for the shipowners, for the clients, for the pilot, for everybody,” Salas said in an interview with JOC.com.
The pilots complain that the Panama Canal Authority never consulted them when it drew up the operational plans for the new locks. The plans call for the use of tugboats rather than the proved method of using two locomotives on either side of an incoming ship. “It’s less efficient and less safe,” Salas said.
The canal agency said the use of tugs for the transit of vessels is a “known practice” in canals around the world. It said it has been investing in increasing its tugboat capacity, purchasing 14 tugs built in Europe in the last two years at a cost of more than $11 million each. “We have high regards for the professionalism and skill of our pilots and remain confident that the training the ACP has determined to provide them will guarantee that they are adequately prepared to safely navigate the larger vessels through our new locks utilizing tugboats instead of locomotives,” it said in a statement in response to questions by JOC.com.
“The locomotives have been working safely for over 100 years,” Salas said. “Why would you want to do it any other way?” He said the Panama Canal Authority would have to spend much more money on a tugboat fleet than the older, tried-and-true method. Under the current method, each locomotive has an operator who is a member of the pilots’ association. Under the method planned for the new locks, each tugboat would have a crew of five, none of whom is a member of the pilots’ association.
The canal pilots, who are affiliate members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, make an average of $180,000 a year, but unlike other canal employees, their income is variable and depends on the number of ships they pilot through the canal.
Despite their reservations, the pilots did not object to the canal authority’s plan to use tugboats rather than locomotives at the time the plan was drawn up, but decided to protest when the authority said it would allow two ships to pass each other in the Culebra Cut while traveling in opposite directions. Salas said this was not part of the original plan.
“That’s it; I am drawing the line right here, “he said. “When it comes to the navigation of the ship, I am the only one who has anything to do with it. I am not going to put up any more with the administration not taking our input when it comes to the operation of the canal.”
Salas said the pilots’ association is raising the issue now to try to get a response from the canal authority. He said the pilots’ association does not plan any labor action, but that it had filed a notice of unfair labor practices against the agency.The Panama Canal Authority said it consults with its employees on the canal’s operations. “Decisions made by the Panama Canal Administration regarding the operation of the expanded canal are not made arbitrarily. They take into consideration the very valuable opinion of highly experienced workforce,” it said in the statement.
Salas said that under the original plan for the expansion project, which was published in 2006, the Culebra Cut was widened from 630 to 715 feet, which was designed to allow passage of one ship at a time with a beam of 150 feet traveling in one direction.
“They did a lot of homework and spent millions of dollars on studies and analyses,” Salas said.
One of those studies, the Technical Analysis of the Proposed Panama Canal Post-Panamax Navigation Channel, stated that “if some of the current operating restrictions were lifted once the Cut straightening and widening program is complete, select Panamax ships could be allowed to conduct two-way transits through canal entrances and the Cut.”
Salas said that in May the canal authority notified the pilots’ association that it would allow two ships with beams of 160 feet to navigate the 7-mile-long Cut while traveling in opposite directions. “We are talking about the same channel, the same width, the same depth and the same rocks because the rocks are still there, so what changed? That is the question,” Salas said. “All of a sudden (ships can pass with) a little more than twice as much size as we could do when they first did the study? I have to say it’s irresponsible.”
The canal authority statement said simply that the Culebra Cut is currently being widened to 715 feet, which should allow two post-Panamax vessels to navigate side by side through the Cut.”
When Salas asked the canal authority for studies and analysis showing that two ships could safely pass each other in the expanded Culebra Cut, “the authority said they do not exist,” he said.
“They can increase the throughput of the Panama Canal, but they risk having an accident and shutting the canal down,” Salas said. It’s not my intention to scare the customers away, but we have enough time, but the administration and the pilots have to get together now to work out how this is going to work.” [JOC.COM]