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When it was being built 100 years ago, the Panama Canal was the biggest construction project in the world. Now, a multi-billion dollar effort to expand the canal is pretty close to that category of world's biggest. As NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, the expansion will allow for far more and much bigger cargo ships to travel from Asia, to the East Coast of the U.S.
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JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: At the Panama Canal, two giant ships are moving through parallel channels at the Miraflores locks, heading towards the Pacific Ocean. The orange-and-white Bow Summer is a tanker. The deck of the Ever Dynamic is stacked high with burgundy-and-blue shipping containers. More boats like these are backed up in both the Pacific and the Atlantic, waiting to enter the waterway.
Arnold Cano, an engineer who's working on the expansion, says the basic structure of the facility hasn't changed since it opened in 1914, yet the volume of global trade has exploded.
ARNOLD CANO: Usually, when people think about the expansion of the canal, most of the attention is given to the bigger ships, the post-Panamax ships. Right now, they can't fit through the Panama Canal. And that's a big aspect of the expansion, but really, the main driver for the expansion is capacity. It's being able to transit more cargo.
BEAUBIEN: By adding a third lane, 50 percent more ships will be able to pass through the waterway each day, but more importantly, the larger vessels will be moving significantly larger loads.
CANO: Right now, the biggest ship that can go through the canal is a ship that can carry about 4,000 to 4,500 20-feet containers. Containers come in different sizes, but 20 feet is the size that we standardize for measuring ships.
BEAUBIEN: In the expanded canal, ships that can hold three times that many containers, 12 to 13,000 units, will, for the first time, be able to pass through the locks. These ships primarily shuttle goods from Asia to the United States. Rather than docking in California and sending their cargo by truck or rail to the East Coast, they'll be able to steam through the Canal to Miami, Norfolk or New York, although most ports on the U.S. East Coast still aren't deep enough for these vessels to enter.
Work on the expansion of the Panama Canal began in 2007, and the new channel is scheduled to open in 2014.
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BEAUBIEN: Currently crews are working around the clock on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the project. Massive, yellow earth movers are cutting a valley-sized trench. Monster dump trucks so large the driver's cabin looks ridiculously small trudge through the ripped-up earth. Near the Pacific Ocean concrete is being poured in what will eventually be Lock number 2.
RAMON CASCANTE: This is one of the walls for the gates, that will hold the gates.
BEAUBIEN: Ramon Cascante is standing on the floor of the project. He's an engineer in charge of water management, both keeping water out of the pit and making sure the contractors have the water they need on the site. Cranes loom overhead while workers rush in what seems to be every direction.
CASCANTE: One of the most challenging things on this project is the durability requirement on the contract. We made clear on the contract documents that the locks need to last at least 100 years.
BEAUBIEN: He says the contractors have had to formulate special concrete for the outer layers of the canal to withstand the constant flushing of water in and out. The new locks will have double doors so that one set can undergo maintenance while the canal remains operational.
Shipping company officials say the opening of the new channel in 2014 will be a game-changer for the global shipping business. Far more and far larger vessels will head to Panama, even if they don't transit the canal. Even now, significant amounts of cargo are shipped to Panama's ports, reshuffled into smaller boats and then distributed throughout the hemisphere. Tiehan Zhong with China Shipping Lines in Panama City says this will increase considerably as the canal becomes even more critical to global trade.
TIEHAN ZHONG: It looks like all the world.
BEAUBIEN: He says boats that currently are going from South Asia through the Suez Canal to New York may instead head east and transit through Panama. The canal expansion opens up more opportunities, he says, to move more goods from China to the largest consumer market in the world, the U.S., at a lower cost.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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