Q&A: Touring the Panama Canal Expansion Project

In this podcast, Senior Editor Peter T. Leach talks with Managing Editor Dana L. Brundage on location from Panama City, Panama, as he tours the new locks under construction at the Panama Canal. The new locks are part of a major construction project slated to be finished by October 2014. This is the first podcast in a two-part podcast interview.

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Listen to part two: Transiting the Panama Canal

Transcript:

Dana: Peter, you are on location in Panama City, taking a tour of the Panama Canal, including the new locks currently being built as part of the bigger 2014 project. Can you tell us what you’ve seen so far on this trip?

Peter: What I saw yesterday when I went to Corozal with the constructions offices that are managing the construction of the new locks on both the Atlantic and the Pacific side. What they showed up was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I couldn’t believe the scale of the project. They are excavating approximately 50 percent more soil and rock now for these new locks than they did when they built the original locks back between 1904-1914.

We met with Jorge Quijano, who is the executive vice president of the Canal Authority and in charge of the whole new construction project. He’s a 35-year veteran of the Panama Canal Authority; Texas educated but born and raised in Panama. He expresses extraordinary enthusiasm for his work. They took us up to the construction site which runs parallel to the Miraflores locks, the first locks a ship encounters when a ship comes up from the pacific side of the canal. The Miraflores locks are two locks in a row that raise ships up to the Miraflores Lake and then up to the Pedro Miguel locks which raise the ship up to the Gatun Lake. The new locks -- instead of being three locks separated by a lake -- are three locks, one-two-three in a row.

We went up and stood on the lip overlooking the construction project where they are blasting down into basalt, cliffs of basalt, 35 stories below where we stood. When we looked down at the machinery and the men in their yellow vests, they looked like small toys, way, way down there. What they were doing was excavating the basalt rock, which they blasted and put them on these huge Caterpillar trucks, which haul them up to the top of the level where we were standing and they put them into the rock crushing unit which grinds the big rocks down to fine sand and mix with concrete and make cement out of, and they will use that to build the locks. It’s just an amazing construction site. Breathtaking in fact.

Dana: We will be speaking again later this week and you will update us on the second half of your trip.

Peter: It’s an amazing project. It’s still on target to be finished in October of 2014. They are ahead of schedule on some of the projects and behind on others. One of the things that has created a problem for them is because of the changing weather, this ordinarily dry season has become a rainy season. In some cases, they have begun pouring concrete and what they are doing is stretching gigantic rolls of plastic over the concrete to prevent it from getting wet during the drying process. They’ve had to be very nimble and fast on their feet to adjust to the new weather conditions. Same weather conditions we’re experiencing up in New York, where we have frigid winters with lots of snow. Down here they are getting lots of rain during what should be the dry season. That’s an example of some of the challenges they face.

Dana: Peter, thank you for joining me today.

Peter: I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about this project. It’s magnificent.