Just as ships from all over the world converge on the Panama Canal, so are construction groups clustering in and around the canal's $5-billion expansion project. The centerpiece of the project—the $3.25-billion third set of locks—is 22% complete, while the Pacific- and Atlantic-side programs are nearing the finish line. Slightly more than four years into the expansion, major lessons have been learned and new precedents set in terms of program management, quality control and construction innovations.

Many of these lessons were presented at the Panama Canal Symposium on April 18-20. Officials there juggled between presentations, networking and the daily tasks of dealing with the canal construction—tasks heightened by the recent notification of Grupos Unidos por El Canal, the locks consortium, of a six-month delay due to concrete-mix problems.

In an interview with ENR, Jorge Quijano, program manager with the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), noted that the consortium came to the agency last year with the concrete-mix issue. “He had decided to use pozzalan, but then you need something else to make it less permeable,” he says. “We said, 'We have an idea, but it’s up to you.' We brought in our own expert, just for his opinion.”

After exploring the options presented, the contracting team opted to use silica fume. The team will try to make up some of the delay.

Gerry Delrio, construction manager for the Atlantic-side locks with CH2M Hill, ACP’s program manager, says the concrete, like every other aspect of the project, has required a learning curve.

"When was a canal last built?" he asks rhetorically. "Expert contractors are leading an effort with a Panamanian workforce trying to get this high-performance project on its way. When excavation started, it was difficult because they were getting used to the area. Now, excavation is back on schedule. They’re learning to place the concrete. It will be the same with the electro-mechanical work."

Quijano says the delay on the third locks project should not affect any of the other projects. "Delays on other projects might affect the locks, but those are coming along very well," he says.

The announced delay followed a weeklong work stoppage in January organized by SUNTRACS, one of Panama's largest construction labor unions. The walkout, which only affected workers for Grupo Unidos por el Canal, ended when the consortium agreed to a 13% wage hike. The locks are now on track to be flooded in September, and pre-commissioning tests should go forward in April 2015. The consortium now faces significant fines for the delay that could reach a maximum of $54 million. Quijano fit the recent developments into his keynote remarks about handling risk and scope.

"We still have a long way to go, but we have a well-defined scope with the least possible risk and discipline in execution," Quijano said at the symposium. With a tongue-in-cheek apology to the contractors in the room, he added, "Contractors are experts in selling you mirror tricks" that can contribute to scope creep.

Investing in good attorneys, Quijano said, helped the ACP "prepare solid bid packages that we could defend. Yes, there are claims in every Pacific Access Channel project and the locks, too. The first four have gone to arbitration. We did our homework and came out looking good."

Being in a rush to put out bids can have costly results, Quijano said. "Contractors can say, ‘We don’t care what the risks are," he said. "Bids don’t have to be perfect the first time out, but we need to amend them as we go on."

The locks contract has 25 amendments, he noted.

Considering the numbers of consortiums, each consisting of firms from different countries, he advised contractors, saying, "You must have clear, precise agreements on your roles and organizations in your proposals. Things can get complicated. You can be held hostage to your subcontractors."

Moreover, "An American company is not the same as a Greek company, [although] they can be equally effective," Quijano said. He acknowledged that it is difficult, saying, "We have an integrated ACP-and-CH2M Hill locks team, and it’s not easy." With a bit of humor, he added, "They’re a first-world firm, and we are a bunch of Panamanian engineers. We had a Panamanian boss, then an American boss, then a Panamanian … it was an explosive situation in the first few months. A training process was crucial." He added, "Consortia are like elephants: strong but slow. Even in the $300-milion projects, we found that the dynamics were incredibly slow."

Jose Reyes, ACP project manager for the third locks construction, said that, thanks to a comprehensive "risk register," the recent strike had been anticipated. He said, "We document [every risk], multiply by ten and hope that is enough."

He also described ACP’s baseline change-proposal procedure, noting that "even a minor change can have enormous ramifications. We audit until the wheels fly off," he said. "No matter how minor the issue, it is documented and reviewed. If it isn’t resolved in 24 hours, we assign its resolution to a specific person."

Moving Mountains

Eleven years ago, Maximiliano De Puy, geotechnical manager for the ACP, proudly gave tours of the 8.5-mile, $219-million Gaillard Cut widening to 730 ft from 500 ft to decrease ship transit time to 24 hours from 30 hours. That project, roughly a third of the way through the canal from the Pacific Ocean entrance, featured massive cuts in abutting slopes and used an extensive slope monitoring system to avert landslides.

A decade later, the $5-billion expansion requires entirely new slopes and excavations, but the Gaillard Cut project provided a technical foundation for lessons learned, De Puy told attendees.

Before beginning the current excavations for the Pacific Access Channel projects, ACP conducted an "intense" exploration that included 150 kilometers' worth of test borings and 13,000 laboratory tests of the various soils. The geology ranges from swampy, alluvial muck to fractured rocks, loose soils and old landfills. There also was unexploded ordinance from target practice from the era when the U.S. owned the canal.

As protection against the geographical "mess" and to isolate the nearby Miraflores Lake while excavating 26 million cubic meters for the Pacific Access Channel, an international consortium built a 1.8-km-long cellular cofferdam, completed last year. The new access channel will connect the third set of locks with the canal’s main navigation channel.

The backfilled cellular cofferdam holds back Miraflores Lake, the manmade body of water between the Miraflores locks and the Pedro Miguel locks. Once the cofferdam was finished, crews proceeded with the excavation of 26 million cubic meters of material in the access-channel route as well as the construction of a permanent $70-million, clay-core dam using basalt recycled from on-site excavation.

Such recycling is part of the heightened environmental considerations of the project, says Rajan Patel, CH2M Hill civil resident engineer. “We are recycling all the materials, 100%,” he says. "We only import cement and steel." Aggregate is barged in from the Pacific side to supply concrete operations on the Atlantic side in a 24-hour, six-days-a-week operation.

Crews also relocated a host of reptiles, snakes, frogs and other wildlife at the very beginning of the project, Patel adds.

The concrete and aggregate operations feature on-site ice-making to cool mixes as well as different mixes for the upper, middle and lower chambers of the third set of locks. "Each mix is like making a particular type of bread," says Delrio. "You have to remember, the name of the game is that ACP wants this to last 100 years."