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Panama Canal, Bridge of the Americas
C.J. Schexnayder
A ship passes under the Bridge of the Americas at Panama City, Panama, which is part of the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal Authority has awarded a $177.5-million dredging contract to a Belgium firm to widen and deepen the Pacific entrance to the canal as part of the massive $5.25-billion expansion to the historic waterway.

Officials with the authority — referred to by its Spanish-language acronym, ACP � presented the contract to Dredging International of Belgium this week.

"As the third and largest expansion program contract in terms of volume, geographical spread and price awarded to date, the selection of Dredging International is a critical next step in the creation of the new lanes," ACP Executive Vice President Engineering and Program Management Jorge Quijano.

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Panama Canal, Pacific entrance
Panama Canal Authority
Diagram of the Pacific entrance widening at the location of the proposed new locks.

The ACP says the order to proceed will be issued in the next few days. Work on the Pacific entrance should start by the end of the year and will take four years to complete.

The canal expansion is expected to double the capacity of the historic waterway by the time it is complete in 2014. The dredging of the Pacific sea entrance is critical to the project since it will allow sufficient draft and width for the longer, wider ships the new locks are being designed to accommodate.

The 9-mile-long navigation channel beyond the Pacific entrance of the waterway will be widened to a minimum of 715 feet and deepened to 51 feet below maximum level of the mean low water mark. The contract also includes creating a south access to the new locks at roughly the same dimension to allow the passage of the larger vessels.

Only three firms participated in the bidding process which concluded on March 19. Of the other two firms submitting bids, Boskalis International BV of the Netherlands proffered a $259 million for the contract followed by a $485 million offer from Jan De Nul N.V/Van Oord Dredging and Marine Contractors BV of Belgium and the Netherlands respectively.

ACP officials said they made a thorough review of the lowest priced proposal before awarding it to Dredging International.

Among the major projects undertaken by Dredging International is a $383-million effort to dredge 45.2 million cubic meters of material as part of the massive upgrade of Port du Havre in France known as Port 2000.

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Pacific entrance
Panama Canal Authority
Diagram of the Pacific entrance widening heading out to the ocean.

The company has experience in Latin America, working on the $219-million Martin Garcia Channel Project on the Rio de la Plata on the border of Argentina and Uruguay. A total of 44 million cubic meters of material was removed as part of the 75-mile-long project. Some portions must be widened more than 320 feet to a depth of more than 30 feet.

The firm is also involved in a $23.6-million maintenance dredging works on the river Orinoco in Venezuela.

The Panama Canal expansion will also include the contracting of an outside firm for another major dredging job — the removal of 14 million cubic meters of material at the Atlantic entrance. ACP officials estimate the cost of this job at $70 million and expect to put it out to bid in early 2009.

The entire expansion project will include the dredging and excavation of more than 50 million cubic meters of material — more than half of which the ACP will conduct itself. To handle the increased workload the authority is in the process of upgrading and expanding its own dredge fleet.

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map, Panama Canal, dredge
C.J. Schexnayder
A map indicating the location of the dredge project in relation to the canal and Panama City.

Earlier this month, the ACP announced it had contracted IHC Beaver Dredgers B.V of Holland to construct a new $96-million cutter-suction dredge for its fleet. The new dredge, expected to join the canal fleet in May 2011, will replace the current cutter-suction dredge, the Mindi, which has been in service since the 1940s.

The expansion project is being overseen by Denver—based engineering and construction company CH2M Hill who were named project manager in August.

The heart of the expansion will be the construction of new locks of sufficient capacity to handle the large post-Panamax container vessels which are too large for the existing locks used by the waterway.

In December, the canal authority approved four consortiums comprising of 30 companies to participate in the bidding process to construct the larger locks that are the heart of the expansion project. The estimated $3.35-billion "design-build" contracts will include the construction of two new sets of locks allowing the massive post-Panamax ships to utilize the waterway.

The new single-lane, three-step locks at the Atlantic and Pacific entrances will boast lock chambers 427 meters long by 55 meters wide and 18.3 meters deep — more than sufficient for the 366-meter-long post-Panamax ships. Instead of 'miter' gates uses by the existing locks, the new locks will use rolling gates similar to those at the Berendredt canal in Anbres Belgum.