Progress & Pollution Port Cities Prepare for the Panama Canal Expansion

By Hricko, Andrea | Environmental Health Perspectives, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Progress & Pollution Port Cities Prepare for the Panama Canal Expansion


Hricko, Andrea, Environmental Health Perspectives


Early in the planning of the Panama Canal, Navy Commander Thomas Oliver Selfridge, Jr., wrote that "advantageous as an interoceanic canal would be to the commercial welfare of the whole world, it is doubly so for the necessities of American interests." (1) And indeed, since the Canal opened in 1914, it has been the main conduit for ocean-going ships carrying trade worldwide. Today the United States ranks number one in tons of cargo passing through the Canal (China ranks number two). (2) In 2011 nearly 13,000 ocean-going cargo ships made the passage. (3)

Starting in the late 1950s (and expanding rapidly thereafter), internationally traded goods started being shipped in large metal containers, making it possible to load and unload cargo by machine instead of by hand and spurring the manufacture of larger ships. (4) "Panamax" ships were designed to be just small enough to squeeze through the locks of the Canal. (5) Today, even larger ships--called "post-Panamax" because they are too large to fit through the Canal (6)--make up 16% of the world's container fleet but account for nearly half the fleet's cargo capacity.7 To allow these larger ships to transit the Canal and increase its ability to handle higher volumes of ships, Panama is building a third set of locks, with construction expected to be finished in 2015. (7)

The Panama Canal expansion has sparked the competitive imagination of East Coast and Gulf Coast (EC/GC) port authorities, who hope to capture some of the 70% of U.S. imports currently controlled by West Coast (WC) ports. (8) Ports typically make their revenues through leases with shipping lines, wharfage fees, and tariffs. So the more containers a port handles, the more money it can make.

Experts at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) call the Panama Canal expansion a likely "game changer" for U.S. trade, potentially redistributing the market share of each coast's ports, as well as opening up new import and export markets for agricultural and other products along inland waterways. (7) Some have estimated that container volumes at EC/GC ports could more than double from 2012 to 2029. (7) But with this growth come questions about what major initiatives to expand cargo capacity could mean for public health in these port cities.

Competition for Trade

Whereas most ships transiting the Panama Canal today typically carry 3,200-4,500 TEUs of cargo, shipping experts predict that most ships making the passage after 2015 will be in the 4,500- to 8,000-TEU range, (9) although post-Panamax vessels carrying as many as 12,600 TEUs also will be able to cross. (10) A TEU, or twenty-foot equivalent unit, is a measurement to describe cargo capacity. One TEU represents the capacity of a standard intermodal cargo container measuring 20 x 8 feet.

Many WC ports have 50-foot-deep harbors, ideal for post-Panamax ships. With great fanfare in early 2012, the Port of Long Beach (California) announced it had welcomed to its harbor the MSC Fabiola, then the largest container vessel serving the U.S.-Asia trade, with a capacity of 12,500 TEUs (11) (a distinction since claimed by the MSC Beatrice at nearly 13,800 TEUs). One shipping newspaper called the arrival of the massive ship a "floating advertisement" for the Port of Long Beach and its deep harbor. (12)

When the Panama Canal expansion is complete, the MSC Fabiola will be able to pass through the larger canal--but most ports east of the Canal will not be ready to accept it, at least not by 2015. Either their ship channels will not be deep enough to handle the weight of the heavily loaded ship or their bridges will be too low to allow high stacks of containers to pass under them.

In hopes of staying competitive, many EC/GC port authorities (as well as railroads and state highway departments) are taking action to dredge deeper harbors and improve bridges, tunnels, rail lines, and highways to accommodate larger ships and higher cargo volumes. …

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