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Seepage May Sink Canal Timeline

Thursday, November 5, 2015

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Progress toward the finish line of the Panama Canal Expansion Project lost some steam after hitting a speedbump: water leakage in the new locks.

The expansion project, also known as the Third Set of Locks Project, is meant to double the Panama Canal’s capacity by constructing a new set of locks, adding a third “lane” to accommodate the larger New Panamax-size vessels, widening and deepening the existing navigational channels, and making improvements to the water supply.

The Canal de Panamá website charts the $5.25 billion project’s overall progress at 94 percent complete.

However, when the new locks were filled for the testing phase this summer, leaks were revealed, suggesting that the anticipated April 2016 completion target (already two years over schedule) will likely have to be pushed back again.

When the new locks in the Panama Canal Expansion Project were filled for the testing phase this summer, leaks were revealed in a specific area; a timeline for the necessary repairs is awaited from the contractor.

Within the next three weeks, the building contractor Grupo Unidos por el Canal (GUPC)—a confederation of Spanish, Belgian, Italian and Panamanian firms—is expected to file its final report on the situation. This report will clarify the necessary repair timeline and any additional revisions to the expanded canal’s opening date, BloombergBusiness reported Friday (Oct. 30).

Having received preliminary reports on the leak situation, though, Jorge Quijano, CEO of the Panama Canal Authority (APC), the government body responsible for operation and management of the canal, told the business news site that in terms of a delay there “shouldn’t be much if there is one.”

A Crack in the Armor

Filling began in June to start the operational testing of the locks, its culvert valves, maintenance bulkheads and gates in order to detect and correct any deficiencies in the project.

In that process, water seepage was detected in a specific area of the new Pacific Locks in a section that separates the middle chamber and lower chamber, the Canal de Panamá said in a September statement.

Video and samples taken from the concrete structure show the scope of the problems, Fortune magazine reported Tuesday (Nov. 2).

It refers to an August article posted on maritime and offshore website gCaptain that shows a core sample pulled from the area where cracks and leaks are evident. The sample contains “a lot of air” pockets, the site reported.

While more than 4.4 million cubic meters of structural concrete was poured in the construction of the new locks, the cracks and leaks are located in the concrete of one of the new Cocoli Locks, on the Pacific side of the waterway, according to the specialty site.

Specifically, according to ACP, the crack occurred in the “step” or sill of lockhead 3 that separates the middle and lower chambers of the Cocoli Lock structure.

Inspection and Reports

After an August inspection that included experts from the Technological University of Panama, in September, GUPC released its report identifying the cause of the cracking and a proposed solution.

At that time ACP announced that the contractor had identified the root of the issue as a lack of sufficient steel reinforcing in an area undergoing extreme condition testing, The Maritime Executive reported Sept. 30.

The areas of the lock were being stressed tested through exposure to level differentials much higher than those required for normal operations, but that may occur during dry-chamber maintenance works in the future, Canal de Panamá stated.

According to the GUPC report, these stresses in an area with insufficient steel reinforcement triggered the localized leakage. It will reinforce the sill in this area.

While GUPC said it looked at all of the other sills in both the Cocoli and Agua Clara lock complexes, but no other sills showed signs of failing. However, as a preventive measure, GUPC will also reinforce the first and second sill in the Cocoli Locks and the first three sills in the Agua Clara Locks.

Canal de Panama
Canal de Panamá

According to the GUPC report, these stresses in an area with insufficient steel reinforcement triggered the localized leakage. It will reinforce the sill in this area.

Both the contractor and the ACP maintain that the April 2016 deadline is still feasible, although the final comprehensive report from GUPC setting a timeline is still to be filed.

Contracts and Timelines

By its contract, GUPC is responsible for all repairs and for ensuring all construction meets the quality standards set in the agreement.

However, there are those who question the feasibility of the bid that won GUPC the contract. Its winning bid of $3.2 billion (on a $5.2 billion project) was significantly lower than the bids of competitors—and of the government’s cost estimates, according to Fortune.

Additionally, the previous ACP administrator who awarded the contract was a former CEO of the Panamanian company within the GUPC, for which his cousin is also vice president.

According to the magazine, Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela was even quoted as saying, “When one of the bidders bids $1 billion less than the next, there is something very wrong.”

Reports indicate as well that GUPC tried to renegotiate its low bid, demanded that $1.6 billion in cost overruns be covered by GUPC, and threatened to halt work if its demands weren’t met.

According to Bloomberg, the group won a $234 million ruling last year after claiming $463 million for delays in execution of the contract.

The expansion project, begun in 2007, was originally intended to wrap up in August 2014, but following a variety of setbacks including those mentioned above, completion was retargeted for April 2016.

As of July, the project was about $100 million over budget, according to a Journal of Commerce report.


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Concrete; Cracks; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Inspection; Latin America; Locks and dams; North America; Quality Control; Quality control; water leakage

Comment from peter gibson, (11/6/2015, 5:30 PM)

get us info on how they intend to fix it.Dont just report a problem...educate us how to fix more useful.

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