On June 20, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) submitted a vision and strategy document to Congress for the development of port and inland waterway infrastructure related to Panama Canal expansion. Expected to be completed in late 2014 or early 2015, the expansion will double the capacity of the Canal by allowing larger container ships to travel through the channel. U.S. ports seek to capture much of that traffic and are engaged in numerous projects to increase their capacity, primarily by dredging (the removal of sediment from a waterway) the areas leading to their terminals.
The Panama Canal expansion, U.S. port modernization and subsequent expected rise in container volumes at U.S. ports may have adverse environmental effects if proactive mitigation steps are not undertaken. With respect to air pollution, many ports are located in areas already burdened by unhealthy air and the potential rise in emissions from increased traffic would further deteriorate local air quality. EDF has worked with a number of ports on air quality mitigation programs and the USACE report indicates that further measures may be needed to ensure the well-being of the local population and environment.
Key findings from the USACE report include:
- The southern and southeastern portions of the country are the fastest-growing region in the nation and demand for goods from these areas will drive local demand for transportation services.
- Infrastructure development effects on air pollution, land use, water quality, species conservation and environmental justice will “play an important role in modernization decisions.” Mitigation programs will help alleviate environmental risk.
- Limited federal and state funding requires the development of innovating financing to fully fund the port and inland waterway transportation network. Not all modernization projects will be fully funded and the prioritization decision-making process will be influenced by a variety of factors.
- There is great uncertainty over the exact routing, throughput, timing, and trade pattern effects that the expansion will have on each particular port. This uncertainty complicates any funding prioritization strategy.
EDF submitted comments to drafts of the USACE report regarding the environmental factors that should be considered for the port expansion projects. These comments included:
- The need for a comprehensive port environmental policy evaluation system based on transparent and scientifically rigorous data.
- The localized public health effects due to port activities that further burden environmental justice communities.
- Ongoing congestion at many ports and the environmental impacts that result from these inefficiencies.
As ports add infrastructure to handle expected growth in trade and container volumes, we will work to ensure that port modernization supports economic prosperity, public health and environmental quality. An efficient and sustainable transportation system removes barriers to commerce by providing a low-cost and reliable service. Many environmental goals also result in freight movement efficiency gains and there is tremendous opportunity to make sure that the U.S. response to Panama Canal expansion benefits both the economy and clean air.