Panama Canal Expansion Opens Amid Controversy and Hope

Aerial view of Gatun Locks, Panama Canal

Aerial view of Gatun Locks, Panama Canal

By Kyle Beam, GHPB

Rarely does an event in the maritime industry receive mainstream attention that does not involve an environmental or human disaster. But on a sunny late June morning, just outside of the jungles of Central America, with fireworks exploding overhead and thousands of people cheering on, such an event took place, as the new, larger expansion of the Panama Canal opened.

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The COSCO Shipping Panama, a 984 ft. Chinese container ship with 9,472 containers, officially became the first ship to enter the Canal expansion on June 26, when it traversed the 48 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

The opening of the Canal expansion was a cause of nationwide celebration for Panama. Television stations across the country broadcasted for hours leading up to and during the passage of the COSCO Shipping Panama. Parties were held across the country with dignitaries from all over the world taking part in the celebration. The cause of the celebration came not only because of a bigger Canal but because it was built by Panama not by another country. Until 1999, the Panama Canal was controlled and maintained by the United States, after the United States built the Canal in 1914.

The undertaking of the expansion of the Canal was seen as a giant step forward for the government and people of Panama still feeling the effects of the reputation garnered when corruption ran rampant through the country. But through the process of the construction and opening of the Canal expansion not everyone has been satisfied with the outcome.

In an extensive profile in the New York Times, published on June 22, 2016 the new locks come with lots of hope but also lots of fear. The $5.2 billion project was delayed by almost two years from its initial target completion date by a variety of circumstances.

Worker strikes, accusations of corruption in the winning group and drought problems beset the project from beginning. Making matters worse, issues with the concrete led to sections of locks having to be built, then rebuilt. Even after locks were completed massive leaks were found leading to worries about the readiness of the Canal to grow. As the Times detailed, many are worried about a disaster occurring with the new locks because of a lack of training for the tug boat captains, limited space when tug boats and ships are inside the locks and the locks ability to withstand a major earthquake.

As the COSCO Shipping Panama exited the last lock into the Pacific, the worries for some were able to subside with the locks passing their first test. The concerns for others are still existent in Panama, but in the rest of the world the anticipation for what could be with larger ships and increased cargo loads grows daily and promises to keep the maritime industry growing for the foreseeable future.

  • Date July 19, 2016
  • Tags July 2016