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Panama Canal Pollution Threatens

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Written by Matt   
Wednesday, 09 September 2009 06:23
Panama CanalJust a few months ago two disturbing events in their shared right took place. Oscar Vallarino, buy viagra Director of the Panama Canal Authority's Environmental Division, explained that the expansion of the Canal would increase its annual tonnage by an estimated 80% thanks to its capacity to accommodate so many more (and bigger) boats. Around the same time, The Guardian newspaper cited research alleging fifteen of the world's biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world's 760 million cars. Holy shit! The first time I saw the Panama Canal in person, I thought of my grandmother who died a long time ago. She had visited Panama on one of her AARP rewards trips forty or fifty years ago and while the world had evolved greatly in that time span, I liked to think that what I was looking at now and what she was looking at then were among the few images that hadn't changed.

The Panama Canal is one of the most valuable and awe-inspiring marvels of our time. It's certainly Panama's greatest asset and represents, in some form or another, the majority of the country's wealth. When you think about it, from TV sets to Pizza Huts, almost every facet of life in Panama is influenced someway by the creation and completion of the Canal: a fulcrum of culture and a symbol of the nation's past and future. In 2014, the world's most spectacular shortcut is slated to become even more spectacular with an expansion adding new locks and access channels, which would multiply the Canal's profit margin eight-fold.

It's a clear night in the coastal town of Pedasi and we're on the beach grilling fresh lobster and drinking local Abuelo rum. Five hours by car to get here and accordingly, you don't see a whole lot of tourists. I'm fascinated and a little sauced when a local points to some distant lights in the sea, then more to the right, and more to the left. They're boats from the Canal, he said. Hundreds of miles from Panama City, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and like the north star, we can see boats heading for the Panama Canal. In the City, watching cargo ships and cruiseliners cue up from the Causeway is a common pastime and at the Miraflores Locks, it's a chargeable right. But unbeknownst to many of its spectators, Panama's greatest spectacle is building up hazards otherwise overlooked amidst its resounding success.  

Panama's a skinny country and its northern and southern coastlines are equivalent to the Gulf Coast that borders Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama combined, including parts of Florida. According to James Corbett, marine policy professor at the University of Delaware, ship-generated pollution causes 60,000 premature deaths a year in the US alone. "Ship pollution affects the health of communities in coastal and inland regions around the world, yet pollution from ships remains one of the least regulated parts of our global transportation system." For Panama, this has implications not only in places like Veracruz, Isla Taboga, and the capital, but many of Panama's coastal communities: nearly 1 million boats have passed Panama shores through the Canal representing about 4% of today's world trade.

Celebrating the Panama Canal's 100th birthday will be grand I'm sure, but I can't help to wonder what effects that many years of passing boats might have on Panama's air, land, and sea.  

Other environmental concerns with regards to the expansion aren't going unvoiced either. Public health researchers from the University of South Florida have a front row seat to what they're calling ‘the largest public health research project in the western hemisphere,' with offices neighboring the Miraflores Locks. According to Ann DeBaldo, PhD, Associate Vice President of International Programs, "the most critical thing is to make sure that the water supply to the human population is not compromised. Panama City doesn't have any effective sanitation infrastructure for processing sewage. It's all released into the bay - public health frequently boils down to clean water and sanitation."

Environmental impact is something rarely talked about in Panama. Some attribute it to a lacking vision for the future. Others believe that as long as the country's elite can retreat to their beach or mountain homes, violations will persist. Money and power have always spoken loudest in Panama where momentary gain is usually favored over sustainable or environmental progression.  
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Canal authorities say they maintain controlling measures on environmental degradation and effects from the expansion, but nothing can dispute the fact that a lot of ships, using a lot of fuel head to and from Panama every year. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), based out of England, who has global reign on shipping regulations, has entertained ideas of changing the specifications on marine fuel, exhaust gas cleaning systems, and fuel-saving changes in ship design. But the fact remains, there are few places in the world with the concentration of shipping activity of Panama. Which is when I realized the difference between the view I had of the Panama Canal and that of my grandmother half a century ago: around 500,000 ships. Whether gas-guzzling SUVs or fuel-efficient sedans, a highway through your backyard's exactly what it sounds like.  

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Hot Damn
written by PetersB , September 09, 2009
Hot DAMN! SOMething new to worry about in Panama. I thought it was a perfect paradise?! smilies/cheesy.gif smilies/cheesy.gif smilies/cheesy.gif
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...
written by Knewit , September 09, 2009
I always wondered, from the first time I came to Panama, because I have been here for almost 2 years now, where all that pollution built up. The Bay is certain and while they are doing a "Bay Clean Up" this won't affect any of the coast regions that have ship-sludge along their home. Nice article Matt - very enlightening.
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Questions
written by J. Dubner , September 09, 2009
These are serious questions of infrastructure for Panama. There's a difference between nicest in Central America and nicest in the World. I, for one, believe Panama will be able to overcome these challenges with its cash flow (during hard times) and revamped government. There are environmental hazards of the canal, sure. But there are environmental hazards in all developing countries - by comparison - compared to, say, India, Panama is much further along and more easily manageable because of its size.
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I had never even considered this
written by Wael , September 09, 2009
When we talk about pollution from ships, what are we talking about? Engine exhaust? Garbage thrown overboard? Sewage dumped into the water? All the above? So if I'm swimming at Playa Santa Clara, am I swimming in ship sewage?

Wael, http://steptolife.blogspot.com/
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Good Question
written by Mateo , September 09, 2009
Wael,
Good question: most of the research I came across was with regards to air pollution from ships. There's the obvious sludge water sanitation issues in the City's utility grid (doesn't the Bay smell delicious?) - though I tend to find that in diffused-enough areas (like Santa Clara for example) the water quality is more acceptable. More intense areas: I swim there but don't admit it often :/
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say what?!
written by Lamer , September 11, 2009
"Panama City doesn't have any effective sanitation infrastructure for processing sewage. It's all released into the bay"
SAY WHAT ?!
And how exactly are they cleaning the bay right now?
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