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Panama Canal expansion to ease international trade, with a grain of salt

The economic impacts of the canal expansion have been widely cited, but environmental repercussions like the contamination of drinking water with salt water may be overlooked.

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A container ship moves from the waters of the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through the Panama Canal at the Miraflores Locks, in this February 2010 file photo.

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor/File

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As work on the $5.25 billion Panama Canal extension project continues and the completion of the project nears, there are growing concerns about the negative environmental impact of the expansion and whether the project will deliver the economic benefits promised before construction began.

The aim of the project – expected to be completed by 2014, in time to mark the structure’s 100-year anniversary – is to double the capacity of the canal by adding two new three-chamber locks on both the Pacific and Atlantic ends. This complex upgrade will allow the world’s largest cargo ships to pass through the canal, dramatically increasing the canal’s traffic and allowing these ships access to East Coast ports.

But there are a number of potential environmental problems, the primary concern is that the expansion could contaminate Panama’s main source of drinking water, Lake Gatun, with salt water. There are also concerns that the public was not made aware of all the potential long-term impacts of the expansion project, and that its economic benefit has been overstated, according to Eric Jones, editor of the English-language Panama News.

“We didn’t really have any kind of discussion and so much of the discussion we did have was so patently fraudulent,” Jones said of the debate prior to the start of the project. “There are major concerns, but we’re not going to know how it works out until it’s done.”

Salt vs. fresh water

Each time a ship passes through the canal, salt and fresh water become mixed as the boats are raised or lowered through a series of three locks. In order for the expansion to be successful, more water must be used in the lock system, and much of this water comes from Lake Gatun, Panama’s primary fresh water supply.

There are growing concerns the water of Lake Gatun could become brackish, or have more salinity than fresh water, through this process says Charlie Andrews, a partner at the global intelligence and advisory firm Ergo who has been following the development of the canal expansion project.

“Fresh and salt water will be required to run through the channel, and this has a direct impact on Gatun Lake,” Mr. Andrews says. “There are concerns about the ability to control the amount of seawater that flows through the lake.”

Currently, the canal has the capacity to allow cargo vessels known as Panamax ships travel through. These ships have the capacity to move 5,000 twenty-foot equivalent units, similar to cargo containers carried by trains and trucks. Once the expansion is complete, post-Panamax mega-ships will be able to pass through the canal. The largest of these vessels have the ability to carry up to 13,000 cargo containers.

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