Each chamber of the locks will measure 427 meters long and 55 meters wide. In both sets of locks, on the Pacific and Atlantic, 4.5 million cubic meters of concrete will be used. These are astronomical numbers that rank the public work among the biggest in the world. The gigantic blue stones being removed from the bottom and sides of the canal are eye-catching. The canal will connect the locks with the Gaillard Cut and will be filled with waters from Lake Gatún. It is a new canal. Panama as a country has taken on the challenge of expanding a feature that is of global importance.
Samuel Cohen, a civil engineer and Supervisor of the Quality Control Unit for the Pacific Locks Project, tells us that the excavated material is known as basalt. After passing tests in the laboratory, the rocks get crushed into different sizes to be used as aggregate and sand in the preparation of different concrete mixes for paving the three dams that will hold back water from the canal where post-panamax vessels will navigate towards the Pacific.
"Dams are key. We are undertaking the task of starting to build them." He tells us that the material used from the Pacific side is of good quality, unlike the material referred to as 'cockroach'. The man knows what he is talking about, as the senior thesis he wrote 30 years ago was titled "Slope Stability in the Gaillard Cut."
David McCullough's book, A Path Between Two Seas, records the difficulties presented by the 'cockroach' clay materials that disconcerted the construction workers for its instability, which more than once threatened the project's success. Here in the mouth to the Pacific the material is good and is transported by barge to be used for the construction of the locks on the Atlantic side.
"The two locks have identical designs. Due to higher tides on the Pacific side, its walls are higher; whereas soil characteristics on the Atlantic required its lock to have larger foundations," Cohen tells us. He also enjoys painting and seeks to capture on canvas the experiences he is having with his team in the expansion unit.
Although cloudy out, the environment is bright enough to bother the eyes. So we wear special sunglasses, along with hard hats. The construction workers wear heavy work boots and bright orange vests to be easily spotted by the constantly moving heavy equipment.
Metal towers rise up out of the gaping space for the locks, with conveyor belts to transport the concrete. It is hauled by concrete mixing trucks from the plants that operate on the banks of the extension to the dump sites, where it passes through chutes to the construction site.
The quality of the material is essential in order for the construction to last more than 100 years, says Donald Espino, an engineer and expert in designing the concrete mix. One hundred years ago this material also posed a challenge for the builders of the Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatún Locks. One hundred years later, technology helps to make the challenge of expansion less dramatic than the original construction of the canal, but Cohen says that regardless there are day-to-day challenges that must be solved.
There are certain facts that amaze us, such as the fact that the new access channel to the Pacific is 10 meters above the bed of the original canal, and that the dams must completely hold back the flow of water.
This is the second time that I have visited the construction site on the Pacific, and I can clearly see the progress. We feel that the Panama Canal Authority wants these details to be shared with the world and also known by the Panamanians. Yira Flores' work on historical documentation makes that clear. The boats in front of us continue to use the Miraflores Locks, and from up on Ancón Hill an old watchman seems to watch everything with satisfaction.