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Analyst hits back in row over Panama Canal safety

Analyst hits back in row over Panama Canal safety
The canal's expansion is scheduled for June

The analyst who raised safety concerns about the Panama Canal’s new locks has replied to criticism from the Panama Canal Authority (ACP).

Fundação Homem do Mar’s (FHM) report claimed that the new locks are too small for safe operation (with both gates closed). In particular, the study found that the small dimensions of the locks, the lack of refuge areas for the tugboats inside them, and an insufficient bollard pull compromise the safety of manoeuvrability.

The ACP dismissed the study’s findings as “inadmissible” and argued in a statement that the claims made in the document are not based on mathematical models and do not include data from physical navigation tests. FHM denied this, citing several standards its simulators have met and articles it has taken into account, as well as the mathematical modelling programmes it possesses.

In a statement, FHM continued: “Our foundation has existed for more than ten years and works in partnership with both private and public organisations, foundations and enterprises to elaborate and develop projects associated with the waterway sector”. FHM has previously carried out projects at ports like Santos, Rio de Janeiro and Puerto La Plata.

An ACP spokesperson had claimed that the authors of the study “have not sailed the Panama Canal, and are not suitable for it.” FHM replied that its “expert staff [is composed] of captains, merchant marine officers and naval architects”.

The ACP said in a statement that the Panama Canal spent nearly ten years to evaluate and analyse the design of the expanded Panama Canal’s locks, adding that this process included conducting internal and external studies to determine how the new locks should operate.  

According to the ACP, this process led to its choice to use up to four tugs to navigate ships, with outside industry experts concluding that its decision was correct. FHM’s study was based on ACP’s original plan to use two tugs. The agency replied: “The ACP has said that rather than two tugs being used in the locks up to four may be used. If that is so, then such use should be analysed via simulation and mathematical modelling, which will allow a better understanding of manoeuvrability and ships’ behaviour in several situations.”

The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) who commissioned the study supported its findings and FHM. Its general secretary Steve Cotton said: “The ITF, like our Panamanian member unions, has repeatedly offered the ACP our co-operation to ensure that the canal is safe for those working on it and those passing through it. In that same spirit, we made the FHM study freely available to the ACP and once again asked for a positive engagement with them.”

In 2015, ITF’s Panamanian member unions claimed that the ACP refused to engage in discussions regarding training, and the technical and construction issues which led to delays in the operation of the expanded canal.

The inauguration of the expanded Panama Canal is scheduled for June 26, 2016.