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Panama Canal Expansion: Goals and Effectiveness


The Panama Canal expansion is a mega construction project initiated in 2007 by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) – a Panamanian government agency – with a goal of doubling the shipping capacity of the passage and enhancing ship calls to the East/Gulf coast. The Canal is a fifty-mile long zone opened in 1914 in the Isthmus of Panama that comprises two lock systems that link vessels between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (DOT/MARAD 1). It facilitates freight movement amongst the Americas, N.E Asia, the EU, and the Caribbean regions.

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The size of the initial lock system meant that the canal could only handle smaller Panamax vessels (<5,000 twenty foot equivalent units or TEUs) (DOT/MARAD 3). The expansion sought to introduce another system of locks and increase the channel depth in L. Gatun to allow larger vessels (11,000 TUEs post-Panamax ships), which would help reinforce the canal’s competitive position and decongest the West Coast. This paper examines the projects of the Panama Canal expansion program (how), contractors involved (whom), measures taken to monitor the companies’ activities, and penalties imposed for breaches.

Panama Canal Expansion Program (How)

The primary goal of the expansion program is to construct a third transit lane and locks that will accommodate the larger post-Panamax ships. Its main components include the establishment of a third system of locks, creation of a Pacific access channel, navigation channel improvements, and water supply improvement.

A Third System of Locks

This project involves the building of two post-Panamax lock complexes to provide a third lane of traffic for larger vessels in addition to the current Gatun and Miraflores locks (Canal de Panama, “Expansion Program” 1). The locks will be located at the Canal’s northern (Atlantic) and southern (Pacific) points. Both complexes will comprise “three chambers, nine water-saving basins, rolling gates, and a lateral filling and emptying system” (Canal de Panama, “Expansion Program” 2).

Dredging projects were completed to extend and deepen the Pacific and Atlantic entrances in order to build the locks. Since the canal’s altitude is above sea level, it uses a system of locks to allow ships to transit between dissimilar elevations. Presently, each lock measures 1,000ft in length, 110ft in width, and 42ft in depth (Canal de Panama, “Expansion Program” 4). The lock capacity provided by these measurements is limited to ships with a maximum freight volume of 5,000 TEUs. Thus, the limited lock capacity means that the post-Panamax ships that are 1,200ft long, 160ft wide, and 50ft deep cannot pass through the channel.

The expansion entails an additional lane with a system of locks on northern and southern sides of the canal. The dimensions of the expanded locks are 1,400ft in length, 180ft in width, and 60ft in depth. Thus, the improved lock capacity will allow the passage of larger vessels, i.e., those with a carrying capacity of >140,000 metric tons of freight. The three chambers in each lock will provide a flight of steps to propel the ships back and forth the sea level and the Gatun Lake elevation (Canal de Panama, “Expansion Program” 9). They will comprise water-saving drainage basins/areas, filled and voided through a gravitational system.

A Pacific Access Channel

The expansion program started with excavations to construct a channel connecting the new system of locks (Pacific) and the Culebra Cut (DOT/MARAD 9). The four-phase project to create the Pacific access channel entailed the building of a 2.3km long Borinquen 1E dam in the western side of the Pedro Miguel locks. The dam will increase the elevation of the new channel by up to 9m to ensure safe navigation of large vessels.

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Initially, its construction involved the insertion of a grout mortar to fill in cracks in the substratum. Subsequently, an artificial mound of rock and clay core was built to barricade the Gatun Lake from Miraflores Lake. The project also involved dry-excavation activities to dredge up to “50 million cubic meters” of material in an area covering over six kilometers (Canal de Panama, “Expansion Program” 12). This resulted in the Pacific access channel with its filling with water starting in 2015. The channel was filled to a height of 27.2m, which is equivalent to the water level at L. Gatun.

Navigation Channel Improvements

The improvements entail dredging projects to ensure safe navigation of ships through the channel. The excavations are being done in the northern and southern entrances, Culebra Cut, and L. Gatun (DOT/MARAD 16). The goal is to remove underground material to expand the depth and width of the channels in these three areas. Dredging works on the Culebra Cut and L. Gatun have reached completion. The channel in these two areas was expanded to a width of 225m and a depth of 15.5m. In contrast, the northern and southern entrances were expanded to 225m in width and 16.1m in depth.

The project also entailed breaking the northern plug of the channel. Its removal involved excavation, blasting, and hydraulic dredging initiatives to widen this channel and make it passable. Different contractors were involved in these activities. Subsequently, 34 new navigational towers were erected to ensure safe vessel navigation through the channel.

Water Supply Improvement

The project aims to increase the level of L. Gatun’s water by 45cm to enhance the reliability of water supply to the canal. It is anticipated that the upper limit of L. Gatun’s operational level will rise to 89ft up from the current level of 87.5ft (DOT/MARAD 16). To achieve this, the project activity includes modifying the operational structures in riparian areas. The alterations will affect specific areas within the Canal, including the Gatun locks (southern part), Pedro Miguel locks (northern section), and pliers meant for smaller ships (Snyder et al. 4). The expected outcome is that the lake’s storage capacity will rise to >200 million cubic meters at all times.

The initial activities of the project entailed expanding the Gatun spillway gates to control the high water volume. The Canal gate system is a critical component of the locks. Additional modifications included the creation of two more gates near the tugboat dock to regulate the water inflows. Their hinges are controlled by a seal system installed as an improvement in the canal water management infrastructure. The reverse-flow valves were also installed to stop water flowing to the passageways. New hydraulic units that could control the southern and northern locks were established to ensure that L. Gatun operates at its maximum level (Snyder et al. 7). The project also involved the installation of watertight bulkheads to curb water seepage into the channels.

Infrastructural facilities in the canal – docks, ramps, and structures – received a major facelift to bring them up to standard with the new installations. It is expected that the elevation of the water level in this lake will increase the dependability of the channel’s water supply. Additionally, water-saving basins constructed will reduce water utilization by 7% and allow the reuse of up to 60% of the water via gravitational means (Snyder et al. 12). The locks installed with rolling gates will enhance efficiency in managing vessel transits.

Contractors Involved (Whom)

Various contractors/companies are involved in different projects in the expansion program, including dredging in the two channel entrances and L. Gatun and Culebra Cut, constructing a new lock system, and reforestation projects (Canal de Panama, “Expansion Program” 4). The management body of the expansion project (PCA) has also signed contracts with various local and foreign financial organizations. The main ones include the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, European Investment Bank, and International Financing Corporation.

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Dredging Projects

Dredging activities are meant to ensure risk-free passage of post-Panamax ships through the canal. The project to dredge the Pacific entrance was completed by Dredging International, a firm based in Belgium, in 2012. Its commencement date was April 2008. The entire project entailed the expansion of the navigation channel on the southern entrance to “225m in width and 15.5m in depth” (DOT/MARAD 18). It also included the building of an access route to the Pacific locks. In total, the dredging removed about 9 million cubic meters of undersea material/sand to expand the Pacific entrance to aforementioned dimensions. The company used high-tech dredgers, e.g., Lange Wapper, to complete this project.

The second dredging project was the one completed at the Atlantic entrance in 2013. The contractor was Jan de Nul Company and the project involved dredging and dry-excavation of a 13.8km area (Canal de Panama, “Expansion Program” 15). The goal was to expand the northern entrance by 27m to a width of 225m, resulting in the dredging of about 18 million cubic meters of sand. Additionally, a 218-meter access route to the northern locks was built during this project. A range of powerful dredges, including a post-Panamax dredge, was used to complete this project.

Additional dredging projects were completed on L. Gatun and Culebra Cut. The work removed over 30 million cubic meters of sand from the sea floor to increase the depth and width of the channels in L. Gatun and deepen those in the Culebra Cut. The contractor involved in the L. Gatun project is the Canal Dredging Company and Boskalis. Jan De Nul completed the dredging of the entrance at the north of the channel in 2012. In the same year, Dredging International completed the dredging of the northern extremities of L. Gatun channel. Another firm involved in dredging activities in these two areas is the Dredging Division. Up to 12 million cubic meters of sand has been dredged in L. Gatun and the Cut.

Besides channel expansion/deepening, navigation systems were deployed to help control ship traffic in the channel. A company called Ingenieria Continental was contracted to design and deploy new navigation systems in the channel. To demarcate the access channels, a Colombian firm, Fabricacion Montajes Industriales, was contracted to create colored buoys (Canal de Panama, “Expansion Program” 17). Additionally, LED lights were erected along the channel to indicate the extent of the waterway. The company will also install 635 light towers on the northern and southern side of the channel.

Design and Production of Locks

It is the main component of the expansion program with an estimated cost of $3.2bn. It began in 2009. A consortium of three firms – the Spanish Sacyr Vallehermoso, the Belgian Jan de Nul, and the Panamanian Constructora Urbana – is undertaking this project (Canal de Panama, “Expansion Program” 15). The project involves the design and production of two identical lock systems to be installed in the northern and southern entrances to the canal. Each lock should have “three chambers, nine water-saving basins, and eight rolling gates” (Canal de Panama, “Expansion Program” 15). The contracts to create these components were awarded to different companies. An Italian firm, Cimolai S.P.A, did the construction of rolling gates, while Hyundai Samho of S. Korea completed the production of the valves.

Reforestation Projects

The expansion activities on the canal have involved rigorous environmental impact assessments and restoration projects since the program started in 2007. Environmental projects involve the joint efforts of the companies and two government agencies – the National Environmental Authority and the Aquatic Resources Authority (Canal de Panama, “Expansion Program” 19). The aim is to rescue and move animals affected by the project to protected locations of the canal. The two agencies have helped preserve the biodiversity of the area by relocating over 5,000 animals from the expansion sites.

Reforestation projects have also been done to restore the biodiversity of the area. The programs are being undertaken in multiple areas, including the Tapagra Hydro-Protection Zone. Additional reforestation projects are going on in the mangrove sites and bay areas. Besides reforestation, archaeological projects geared towards the preservation of archaeological items found in the excavation areas of the canal. Various items, including pre-Colombian arrowheads, have been retrieved from the location (Canal de Panama, “Expansion Program” 9). The ACP entered into an agreement with the Smithsonian Institute in 2012 to conduct an excavation and preservation of archaeological items from the project site. Since then, over 8,000 items, including fossilized materials have been collected for preservation.

Project/Company Monitoring

The PAC Project

Monitoring plans are being enforced in the final phase of the Pacific Access Channel (PAC) project to ensure compliance with the environmental management plan of the ACP. The company involved in the PAC project engaged Environmental Monitoring and Assessment (EMA) and Said monitoring to track the quality of air in project sites and adjacent community areas to ensure compliance with ACP standards (Canal de Panama, “Expansion Program” 15). In addition, the EMA performed random texts on vehicles (excavators) used in the project to determine the concentrations of the emissions. Thirteen out of the 34 excavators in use were found to exceed the threshold values. The penalty for the breach involved an immediate withdrawal of the vehicles from the operation until they meet the required standards.

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Besides air quality, noise levels from the site also undergo quarterly monitoring. This involves the measurement of noise levels in community areas adjacent to Pedro Miguel and Paraiso (IWR/USACE 14). Overall, higher noise levels are not ascribed entirely to the project. Additional noise sources include small vessels, railway trains, and domestic activities. Dosimetry testing is done to measure occupational noise generated by the equipment and facilities used in the project site. The aim is to ensure that work at the excavation sites and dam site occurs within the thresholds established in ACP regulation. The 2013 dosimetry report showed that the noise levels exceed the required 85-dBA level (IWR/USACE 27). As such, it is mandatory for workers to wear hearing protection in the project site.

The PAC project also involves vibration monitoring. Vibration measurement in areas adjacent to places where blasting activities occur involves strategically placed seismographs in Pedro Miguel and Paraiso (IWR/USACE 28). In 2013, the monitoring results indicated that vibration levels fall within the regulated level (<13mm/s).

Other aspects monitored on the PAC project include water and sediment quality (IWR/USACE 29). The aim is to ensure proper implementation of mitigation programs on the project site. The ACP utilizes the ANAM standards to monitor surface water quality. With regard to wastewater or effluents from the plants (rock crushers), a comparative analysis is done based on the COPANIT 35-2000 law. In 2013, water quality sampling from the PAC plants showed no significant results from the standard values.

Gatun Lake and Culebra Cut Dredging Projects

The ACP has been conducting air quality measurements through a monitoring station in the Paraiso neighborhood since 2011 (IWR/USACE 23). It monitors various air contaminants, including nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, and PM10. Overall, the values obtained from the measurements do not exceed the maximum allowable limit. The ACP does periodic measurement of noise levels based on the OSHA regulations. In 2013, environmental noise monitoring was performed in Santa Cruz when dredging was going on in the adjacent community (IWR/USACE 37).

The two projects do not involve vibration monitoring because L. Gatun and Culebra Cut lie far away from community/residential areas. However, vibration monitoring is done for blasting/drilling activities occurring near residential places, e.g., Gamboa. Ongoing surface water quality is another component of the dredging project. The monitoring follows the ACP guidelines applied to Class 3-C resources (IWR/USACE 38). Water quality sampling in L. Gatun and the Cut have revealed that the values fall within the required limits.

Pacific and Atlantic Locks Projects

The ‘United for the Canal Group’ (GUPCSA) has been contracted to implement all monitoring programs in the Pacific and Atlantic Locks project. GUPCSA monitors air quality in areas adjacent to the project sites. Further, it monitors air quality parameters (PM10) using specific instruments placed on the Atlantic Locks project. The ACP monitors air quality in accordance with the environmental impact assessment report. It uses monitoring stations placed in the two sites to do weekly measurements of air quality. In the Pacific Locks project, GUPCSA does the air quality monitoring through the Tucan station (Canal de Panama, “Verification of the Implementation” 49). The 2013 results indicated that the PM10 levels do not exceed the maximum set limit.

Air quality monitoring by the ACP’s Miraflores station revealed that NO2 and SO2 levels do not exceed the allowable limits. The mean monthly PM10 value was 36.6-57.4 μg/m3 (Canal de Panama, “Verification of the Implementation” 54). Other stations at Paraiso and Cocoli recorded values that are below the maximum allowable limits, implying that the development of the two projects does not have a significant impact on air quality. Environmental noise monitoring in the two sites is also done regularly. The results reveal that most of the noise comes from sources unrelated to the project activities, e.g., railroad and birds. Serviblasting International is involved in blasting activities at the two sites. Vibration monitoring results have confirmed that the blasting projects follow the ACP guidelines. Blasts occur during specific hours and at a distance of 300m from populated areas (Canal de Panama, “Verification of the Implementation” 57). The monitoring plans also extend to water quality and sedimentation as well as fauna and flora in the area.


The Panama Canal expansion is a major construction program with four embedded projects – a third system of locks, Pacific access channel, navigation channel improvement, and water supply management. The APC has hired multiple contractors to complete the specific projects. The monitoring activities focus on air quality, noise levels, vibration levels, and water quality and sedimentation resulting from the projects.

Works Cited

Canal de Panama. Verification of the Implementation and Effectiveness of the Mitigation

Measures for the Panama Canal Expansion Program – Third Set of Locks Project: Semi-Annual Report ERM 010. Environmental Resources Management, 2013.

—. Expansion Program: Panama Canal. ACP.

Institute for Water Resources/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers [IWR/USACE]. U.S. Port and Inland Waterways Modernization: Preparing for Post-Panamax Vessels. IWR/USACE.

Snyder, John, Kevin Doyle, and Pardeep Toor. The Potential Impacts of the Panama Canal Expansion and Evolving Post-Panamax/Super Post-Panamax Container Ship Routes on Michigan Freight and Hub Logistics. Center for Community and Economic Development, 2013.

U.S. Department of Transportation/Maritime Administration [DOT/MARAD]. Panama Canal Expansion Study Phase I Report: Developments in Trade and National and Global Economies. Economic Development Research Group, 2013.

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