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Panama Canal Authority Focuses Resources on Gamboa, as Canal Nears Completion

With the dredging finished for the Panama Canal Expansion project, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) can focus its efforts on widening the navigation channel near Gamboa.

With the dredging finished for the Panama Canal Expansion project, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) can focus its efforts on widening the navigation channel near Gamboa.

After finishing its work on the Panama Canal expansion, the dredging division of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) took no time to rest. It immediately began another ambitious project: widening the navigation channel near Gamboa.

The 1,000-person division is using many of its resources on the project, called Gamboa 300, which will widen a section of the canal from 225 meters (738 feet) to 300 meters (984 feet), allowing two ships to pass alongside each other in what is a bottleneck area. Work started on the project in 2013 and is expected to be completed in 2017.

The dredging is taking place on about two miles of the 30-mile canal, in an area just south of Gatun Lake near the canal township of Gamboa. It will cut into the western edge of the Gamboa Reach and Bas Obispo Reach, said Heriberto Castillo, manager of the Plant and Resources Administration Branch for the ACP.

The project uses cutter suction and mechcnical dredges, Here. the Quibian I desposits dredged material on the west side of the reach. The material dredged with mechanical dredges is placed at disposal sites at Gatun Lake.

Planning for Gamboa 300 began in 2011. The first phase – dry excavation – started in October 2013. Dredging began the next year as the division was finishing its work for the long-awaited canal expansion, Castillo said. The work is being conducted in a way that does not interrupt traffic flow on the canal, and is entirely on the western ridge of the channel, because the eastern edge cannot be widened at this point, as it is lined with installations, roads and the railroad.

Though it is not officially part of the canal expansion project, the widening near Gamboa will help move along the heavier traffic from the new canal, Castillo said.

In 2011, ACP purchased the Quibian I, a cutter suction dredge, from IHC Merwede.

“The idea of this project is basically to allow two vessels to cross in this area,” he said. As it stands, he said, large vessels need to take turns passing through the vicinity. “This will reduce the canal transit time, and the waiting time of the vessels, because you will have the possibility of having two vessels passing the same time.”

When Gamboa 300 began in 2013, the division was just completing its work on the Panama Canal Expansion, including deepening the navigation channel through Gatun Lakes, and widening Culebra Cut.

The expansion, which will transform the shipping world by allowing massive ships to take Panama’s shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, started in 2006 when Panamanian voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to invest in the expansion. The expansion required a tremendous amount of excavation and dredging work: geology prohibited a new set of locks adjacent to the old ones, so the ACP had to build new locks parallel but separate from them. This necessitated extensive dry excavation to build and then connect the new locks with Gatun Lake and the Gaillard (or Culebra) Cut, which form the canal. In order to accommodate the ships that would be entering the new locks, the dredging division was tasked with deepening and widening the navigation channels through the canal. The old channels were a minimum 630 feet wide and were expanded to a minimum of 715 feet.

The ACP contracted out the expansion of the Pacific and Atlantic approaches to the canal to private companies. But it decided to do all the work on the interior of the canal with the in-house dredging division, determining that the work was too dangerous and required too much communication with traffic control to assign to a contractor. However, when the project began, ACP didn’t have all the equipment it needed, relying on the ancient MINDI cutter suction dredge, built in 1943, and the dipper dredge Rialto M. Christensen, built in 1977.

To help with the work, it acquired two new large dredges, both specialized for cutting into the hard rock that surrounds the canal. In 2011, IHC Merwede delivered the Quibian I, a cutter suction dredge. And in 2013, the company delivered the backhoe dredge Alberto Aleman Zubieta, named after the man who served as chief administrator of the Panama Canal Authority form 1996 until 2012.

The dredging division also contracted the backhoe dredge Il Principe from Jan de Nul and Cornelius from Royal Boskalis Westminster as they took on widening the Gaillard (or Culebra) Cut, one of the narrowest and most technical parts of the canal. That work began in March 2008; by the time it was completed in early 2013 some 3.2 million cubic meters (4.2 million cubic yards) of dredged material had been removed.

All the dredging work on the expansion project finished in January, Castillo said, and the rest of the work is continuing apace. In June, ACP filled the locks on the Atlantic side of the canal with water and tested their rolling gates for the first time. The locks began to fill with freshwater in mid-June; some six million cubic meters (7.8 cubic yards) of water was needed to fill them. On June 23, 2015, the gate tests took place: the gates, with an average weight of 3,200 tons, rolled shut as they were supposed to.

Once the dredging was complete on the expansion in January, the dredging division could focus more resources on the Gamboa 300 project, Castillo said. Soon, however, that attention will once again be diverted, temporarily. As the new locks and gates have now been installed, in August the dredging division will be called to “pull the plug” at both ends of the canal, blasting through the earth that separates the canal from the new locks. Castillo said this work will initially be done with dynamite and dry excavation equipment, and then dredges will remove the blasted material to make way for the water.

Also in the works is a new contract to widen the Pacific approach to the canal. Years ago, Dredging International was contracted to deepen the Pacific approach to the canal, and Jan de Nul worked on the Atlantic approach. Now, the Pacific approach needs widening, Castillo said, which will require a bidding process.

As the dredging division has worked on the Gamboa 300, it has continually found archaeological items – items from older villages that were erected during the initial construction of the canal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some sites were used temporarily during the construction of the railroad; some of their remains are now being exhibited around Panama. “We have found some kitchen items, for instance, and old machinery that was left from the construction. Sometimes we find cemeteries,” Castillo said.

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