Savannah Port Anticipates Panama Canal Expansion in New York Times

The nation's fourth largest container port is in Savannah. Traffic is growing fast. Photo/Keith Schneider
The nation’s fourth largest container port is in Savannah. Traffic is growing fast. Photo/Keith Schneider

SAVANNAH, Georgia — The business, art, and transactional legitimacy of reporting is to recognize that everything is connected. That’s especially true when your beat is global, your opportunity is unlimited, and your bank account is a like a hungry fledgling fish hawk.

Case in point: this article on the Savannah port’s increasing traffic which was posted today in the New York Times. Much of the port’s success is wrapped around its anticipation of the opening next year of the new and much larger locks at the Panama Canal. I reported that story and a number of others about Panama’s economy, and energy and water resources, for Circle of Blue earlier this year. That grouping of articles also included a piece from here that described the mismatch in U.S.infrastructure investment between port spending and spending for water supply and treatment.

I learned about the Savannah port’s expansion and its relationship to the Panama Canal expansion from an engineer in New York. The link was confirmed during the month I spent in Panama in January. It was only logical to visit Savannah as soon as I could, which was in mid-February.

I found that the business of marine transport here at the nation’s fourth largest container port is a study in visible statistics. Thirty-one ocean-going container vessels berth at the nearly 10,000-foot-long Garden City terminal each week. More than 8,000 trucks arrive and depart from the terminal daily. Garden City handled 3.34 million, 20-foot containers last year, over 10 percent more container cargo than in 2013, and a record.

There are other numbers that are just as vital to Garden City’s growing business, but not nearly so visible. Hidden behind the green curtain of Georgia pine forest that surrounds the terminal are 45.3 million square feet of logistics, storage, and distribution centers, according to the Georgia Ports Authority, the terminal’s owner and operator.

“The link between the terminal and the distribution centers is essential to our operations,” said Curtis J. Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. “Our competitiveness is based on efficiency and connectivity, making sure products don’t sit around. The real estate developments are a partnership that makes expanding trade here possible.”

Big Brands in Big Buildings
Owned, leased, or managed by some of the most recognizable brands in the country – Wal-Mart, Ikea, Home Depot, Target, and Pier 1 Imports – the immense buildings are essential links in the flow of farm, construction, and manufactured products streaming out or into the country through the Savannah River port, one of the country’s most modern maritime transport installations. Garden City’s traffic, which includes everything from containers of frozen Georgia chicken parts heading to Asia and stuffed doggie beds coming in from China, is about evenly divided between exports and imports.

The largest distribution center is the 2.5 million-square-foot facility owned by Schneider Logistics, a unit of the national trucking company. Wal-Mart operates a 2 million-square-foot center in Statesboro, 55 miles west.  Both are expansive enough to completely enclose two typical suburban shopping malls, or all the businesses in Savannah’s historic downtown, which lies just downstream.

There are sufficient numbers of large forested parcels near Savannah to build 35 million more square feet of distribution space. OA Logistics/JLA Home, a subsidiary of the privately-held, California-based E&E Company, announced plans in January to build a 1.1-million square-foot e-commerce fulfillment center near the port.

The Garden City terminal, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, also is influencing distribution center construction up to 250 miles away. Bed Bath & Beyond in 2014 opened a $50 million, 810,000-square-foot distribution center in Jefferson, northeast of Atlanta and 230 miles away. Wal-Mart is constructing a $102 million, 1.2 million-square-foot distribution facility in Union City, south of Atlanta and 250 miles from the Savannah port.
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U.S. Ports Modernize While Water Supply and Quality Deteriorate

Georgia's Garden City Terminal near Savannah is the nation's fourth largest container port. Georgia and the federal government spent $758 million over the last decade to expand and modernize the port. Photo/Keith Schneider
Georgia’s Garden City Terminal near Savannah is the nation’s fourth largest container port. Georgia and the federal government spent $758 million over the last decade to expand and modernize the port. Photo/Keith Schneider

SAVANNAH, Ga. — There’s not much about water infrastructure that gets America’s lawmakers excited these days unless it’s a big coastal port.

The New York/New Jersey port, with a big assist from the federal government, is spending $1.3 billion to lift the 84-year-old Bayonne Bridge high enough to allow a new generation of super-sized cargo vessels to pass underneath. Charleston, S.C., with state and federal support, is spending $2 billion to deepen the harbor and expand port facilities. Miami has a project of comparable size to do the same thing.

Here in Savannah, where ocean-going ships have arrived and departed since the city was founded in 1733, Georgia and its Congressional delegation collaborated to direct $758 million over the last decade to expand and modernize the nation’s fourth largest container port. Over the next decade, say port executives, an additional $1.4 billion is in the port’s capital budget, including $706 million to deepen the harbor and the Savannah River.

In all, spending on capital improvements to U.S. ports has averaged $10 billion annually over the last decade, according to a 2014 study of infrastructure investment by PricewaterhouseCoopers. By 2025, U.S. port capital investments are projected to reach $20 billion annually, the study concludes.

In contrast, U.S. capital investments in water supply and wastewater treatment totaled around $2 billion annually over the last decade. By 2025, investments in water supply and treatment may reach $3 billion annually, says PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Uneven Funding
The mismatch in spending is reflected in two essential metrics that are clearly apparent in Savannah. The Garden City container terminal, with its new electric cranes, redesigned loading deck traffic patterns, and expanded intermodal train facilities, is a showcase marine import and export installation. The decade of investment in equipment and practices by Georgia and the federal government, which came in anticipation of handling more cargo from the expanded Panama Canal, has resulted in hundreds of new jobs at the terminal, and thousands more inside the 45 million square feet of logistics, storage, and distribution centers that surround the port.

In the meantime scant investment in water quality infrastructure has left the Savannah River dirtier than ever. The most recent EPA Toxics Release Inventory, for instance, finds that only two other rivers — the Ohio River and the New River in West Virginia — have more hazardous chemicals being poured into them than the Savannah River.
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Stanley Heckadon-Moreno is Panama’s Great Conservationist and Patriot

Stanley Heckadon-Moreno, one of Latin America’s most influential and successful conservationists, is a national leader in Panama's work to safeguard clean rivers and protect thousands of square miles of magnificent tropical forests. Photo/Keith Schneider
Stanley Heckadon-Moreno, one of Latin America’s most influential and successful conservationists, is a national leader in Panama’s work to safeguard clean rivers and protect thousands of square miles of magnificent tropical forests. Photo/Keith Schneider

COLON, Panama – Across the expanse of a half-century-long career as an ecologist, reformer, and skilled raconteur, Stanley Heckadon-Moreno saw his native Panama engulfed by one spasm of political transition after another.

A weak democracy and resentment of American ownership of the Panama Canal in the 1960s begat the corrupt military dictatorship of the 1980s. A damaging American invasion in 1989 gave rise to a decade of hardship and confusion in the 1990s.

Even the transfer of canal ownership to Panama on the last day of the 20th century, which initiated the most economically buoyant era in the country’s 112-year history, produced a bout of national vertigo. Uncertain at first, government and business leaders took time to prove to themselves and a doubting world that they harbor the skills to manage a 21st century democracy, and an essential maritime main street.

“For a long time, the bankers, the builders, the government administrators, they all reached one conclusion,” said Heckadon, who’s served since 2000 as a staff scientist and manager of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Galeta Point Marine Laboratory, on the Caribbean entrance to the canal. “They said, ‘We don’t need no damn forests. It’s a waste. Trees? Forget the trees. We want development.’ Sea to sea along the Panama Canal. They wanted it to be like the Rhine River. One industry after the other.”

Yet through all of the political convulsions and government advocacy for new development, Heckadon persisted with a message of restraint and a knowing, personal approach that could be as tough as teak or as flexible as bamboo. Much of Panama’s public domain, and a good share of the nation’s land preservation and water conservation ethic can be traced to his work.
Panama’s Land and Water Steward

As one of Latin America’s most influential and successful conservationists Heckadon is directly responsible for safeguarding Panama’s largest rivers, and permanently protecting thousands of square miles of magnificent tropical forests. Indirectly, his considerable role in securing Panama’s natural wealth is steadily producing a durable — and largely non-polluting — new economy that is based on maritime transit, logistics, trade, banking, housing, and tourism.

“Stanley is the voice of environmental conscience for Panama,” said Matthew C. Larsen, director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “His deep understanding of the human activities that affect the abundant natural resources of the nation have made him a highly respected and articulate source of information and perspective on how we can sustainably manage our landscapes.”

The 131,000-hectare (324,000-acre) Chagres National Park was established in 1985 to secure the headwaters of the Chagres River, the freshwater source for the Panama Canal and for most of Panama’s people. Photo/Keith Schneider
The 131,000-hectare (324,000-acre) Chagres National Park was established in 1985 to secure the headwaters of the Chagres River, the freshwater source for the Panama Canal and for most of Panama’s people. Photo/Keith Schneider


Heckadon’s Work Is Seen Everywhere

The 90-kilometer (56-mile) drive from Heckadon’s home in Panama City to his sun-splashed office at the marine laboratory crosses the 289,200-hectare (665,000-acre) Panama Canal watershed. The unmarked hills and green forests are the crowning achievements of his career and a showcase of Panama’s allegiance to its fresh water and tropical geography.

If each of the protected tracts of land that Heckadon established were graphically illustrated, say with bright flags planted in the forests and on the summits of the Canal Zone highlands, the route would be aflutter with color. Continue reading “Stanley Heckadon-Moreno is Panama’s Great Conservationist and Patriot”

Panama’s Hydropower Development Defined By Fierce Resistance and Tough Choices

The concrete 223-megawatt Changuinola I dam began operations in 2011 and enhancing Panama's electrical generating capacity. It also formed a big backwater lake, drove 1,000 villagers from their homes, and ignited years of cultural strife. Photo/Keith Schneider
The concrete 223-megawatt Changuinola I dam began operations in 2011 and enhancing Panama’s electrical generating capacity. It also formed a big backwater lake, drove 1,000 villagers from their homes, and ignited years of cultural strife. Photo/Keith Schneider

CHANGUINOLA, Panama – Rain clouds regularly settle atop the 1800-meter (5900-foot) summits of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Bocas del Toro province. When the mist clears, the full measure of the blue sea, powerful rivers, and splendid forests full of toucans and cacao trees is visible and stunning.

In the five centuries since Christopher Columbus alighted on the beaches of Bocas del Toro in 1502, western Panama’s water-rich tropical bounty has enticed outsiders, built financial fortunes, and led to periodic and fierce popular resistance. In 1899, for instance, American growers tore down tens of thousands of hectares of rainforest and planted the trees that produced the Chiquita-brand bananas that are still shipped from the port at Almirante. From time to time, including a violent confrontation with government security forces in 2010 that left one person dead, Chiquita’s unionized workers organized big disturbances and determined strikes over wages and working conditions.

That same stubborn spirit, widespread across this province of 126,000 residents, still animates the region. It stirs a decade-long battle in the Changuinola River watershed driven by the construction of hydropower projects and by Panama’s shifting views about energy production, economic growth, social fairness, and the value of its prodigious wild forests and water resources. No other Central American country is reckoning with these often-conflicting features of national life with as much consideration and consequence as Panama.

Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Chiriqui Province in western Panama, site of the country's most aggressive dam development. Photo/Keith Schneider
Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Chiriqui Province in western Panama, site of the country’s most aggressive dam development. Photo/Keith Schneider

“This is an exciting period for this country,” said Osvaldo Jordan, a 43-year-old biologist and political scientist educated in the United States who leads the Alliance for Conservation and Development, a human rights organization in Panama City.

“Twenty-five years ago we were a military dictatorship. Fifteen years ago we gained control of the Panama Canal. The last ten years our economy has grown so fast. We have choices to make. There are different definitions for defining modernity. The biggest challenge for Panama is to find the right definition.”

Unrest Over Water Power
For many of Bocas del Toro’s indigenous citizens the definition does not include big hydropower projects.

Since 2003, the tiny Naso indigenous community has fought to a standstill construction of the 33-megawatt Bonyic dam on the Teribe River, a tributary of the Changuinola. The project, undertaken by Hidro-Teribe, a subsidiary of Colombian public utilities company Empresas Publicas de Medellín, also is opposed by Panamanian and Costa Rican environmental organizations because of its proximity to La Amistad International Park. The 401,000-hectare (1,550 square miles) park spans the Costa Rica-Panama border, protects countless species of tropical plants and wildlife, and is the largest nature reserve in Central America.

Not far away, Ngobe villagers are organizing to halt construction of Changuinola II, a 213-megawatt, $US 1.1 billion dam that Panama has approved in a bend of the Changuinola where the free-flowing river cuts between high cliffs of white limestone. Norberto Odebrecht, a Brazilian company, gained government permission this month to build the project, which indigenous villagers say they intend to stop.

Both resistance campaigns are informed by the consequences to the river and native villages from building the $US 630 million, 223-megawatt Changuinola I dam. The AES Corporation, a Virginia-based global energy developer, opened the dam and its power station in 2011 after four years of construction that generated active protests and long blockades of construction routes. The dissent attracted international attention and a rebuke from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission before it was put down by national security forces, which beat protestors bloody.

“Nothing good came from what happened here,” said Bernadino Morales, a 27-year-old college graduate and protest organizer whose family farm was inundated by the 1,400-hectare (5.5-square mile) backwater lake behind the dam. “The river is gone. One thousand people were forced to move. A lot of forest is under water.”

Neither AES executives nor Panama government authorities responded to phone and email requests for interviews for this article.  In published reports and prior interviews with Panama reporters, dam developers and regulators insist that they are building projects according to high standards of environmental protection and with regard to fairly compensating families forced to move.

The dam developers also note that they are performing a national service. Panama, they say, needs the power. And water-powered electricity prevents millions of tons of climate-changing carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere that otherwise would be produced from the same levels of oil- and coal-fired electrical generating capacity. Government statistics indicate that the carbon savings from the Changuinola I dam alone amounts to over 600,000 metric tons a year, or approximately the level of carbon pollution produced by a coal-fired  fossil thermal power plant of similar size.

Tomas Villagro, a Ngobe villager, mourns the loss of th free flowing river, the forest land submerged, and the disruption caused by the Changuinola I dam backwater. He describes the torment of the loss as so deep it feels like grief. Photo/Keith Schneider
Tomas Villagro, a Ngobe villager, mourns the loss of th free flowing river, the forest land submerged, and the disruption caused by the Changuinola I dam backwater. He describes the torment of the loss as so deep it feels like grief. Photo/Keith Schneider

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This Is Panama — Ambitious, Gorgeous, And Independent At Last

Panamanians are warm, honest, friendly, engaging and interested in Americans. What a great country. Photo/Keith Schneider
Panamanians are warm, honest, friendly, engaging and interested in Americans. What a great country. Photo/Keith Schneider

PANAMA CITY, Panama — The Spanish explorer, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, was so inspired by Christopher Columbus’s four voyages to the new world, including Columbus’s last trip in 1502 to Central America, that Balboa undertook his own expedition.

In 1510 Balboa and his men set ashore in the Caribbean rainforest near present day Colombia and established Santa María la Antigua del Darién, the first permanent European settlement in the Americas.
Three years later Balboa, setting out on a search for stores of gold, marched through the rain forest to the summit of Cerro Pechito Parao in what is today Panama’s magnificent Darién Province and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.

For 91 years a heroic statue of Balboa that recreates his claim to the Pacific for the Spanish crown, a scepter outstretched like a cross in one hand, the other clutching his nation’s flag, has occupied an iconic spot along Balboa Avenue, Panama City’s impressive Pacific shoreline drive. The statue emphasizes a central idea about Panama: A Spaniard is the nation’s principal hero.

Indeed, until December 31, 1999, when Panama gained full control of the Panama Canal from the United States, all of the region’s previous 490 years were largely influenced by governments beyond the isthmus. Spain relinquished its hold after 200 years and the isthmus became part of Colombia. Colombia, in turn, ended its oversight in 1903, when with the help of the United States, which was about to start construction of the canal, Panama established itself as a republic.

Panama’s relationship with the United States is, shall we say, complicated. Unlike the allegiance to Spain and Balboa, there are no iconic statues of Americans in prominent public spaces. No statues of Teddy Roosevelt, the American president at the start of canal construction in 1904; or Woodrow Wilson, president at the opening of the canal in 1914; or Jimmy Carter, the president who initiated the process of turning over the canal to Panama in 1977; or George H.W.Bush, the president who launched the 1989 invasion that pushed Manuel Noriega and the generation-old military dictatorship from power.

It’s not that Panama shows America the back of its hand. It doesn’t. Americans retire here in droves now. Panamanians are warm and very much interested in American visitors. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were stationed in Panama to protect the Panama Canal during World War Two. Hundreds of thousands more transited the canal in troop carriers and other Navy vessels to take on the Japanese in the Asian theater.

Panama City's 10-month-old subway already used by 150,000 riders daily. Photo/Keith Schneider
Panama City’s 10-month-old subway, already used by 150,000 riders daily. Photo/Keith Schneider

By and large Panama also recognizes the contemporary value of the United States — responsible for two thirds of the record levels of cargo that transit the canal — to the logistics infrastructure investments that are the foundation of the remarkable 10 percent annual GDP growth that has unfolded here over the last decade.

Still, there’s chatter in the relationship between Panama and the United States. Psychologists and anthropologists, no doubt, would suggest that America’s by-the-book and often stern military management of the canal for 86 years stretched Panama’s patience with colonialism. A clash over flying the Panamanian flag in the canal zone early in 1964 prompted three days of clashes that left 21 Panamanians and four Americans dead. There’s lingering resentment about the number of civilian deaths and the damage sustained by Panama City during the 1989 U.S invasion.

It’s these influences, no doubt, and something more that underlies what Panamanians now think about the U.S. There’s an unmistakable, and understandable chip on Panama’s shoulder today. Freed for the first time from diplomatic and military influences of a foreign government, Panama is proving to itself that it is capable of managing a modern government. It is building a magnificent global city. And Panama is capably operating a vital revenue-producing maritime trade route.

Panama, in short, is a country unleashed with a fervor and approach matched by few other developing nations. Its waters are clean. Half of Panama’s natural forests are still standing. The air is clear. Incomes, home values, and business starts are rising. The rate of unemployment is among the lowest in the world. Panama also succeeded in keeping out of its borders the heavy drug production and export culture that made its neighbors Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador so dangerous.

The result is that this small nation of 3.9 million people has an opportunity to do something rare — developing an operating system that fits the conditions of this time and this place. Panama has a real chance to build the commercial eco-paradise that people here talk about, a nation that respects the land, the water, the law, and its people. TIP — this is Panama.

A vendor along the Avenida Balboa shaves ice for snow cones in Panama City. Photo/Keith Schneider
A vendor along the Avenida Balboa shaves ice for snow cones in Panama City. Photo/Keith Schneider

During a month of travel and reporting in Panama, a number of other characteristic TIP traits emerged:
Warmth and Honesty
— Panamanians that I encountered were universally engaging, candid, and trustworthy in every way. Waiters, shopkeepers, drivers, bystanders, hotel personnel, strangers — all were so helpful in translating, finding directions, making change, assisting with SIM cards, you name it. One evening, while exercising in the seaside park along Avenida Balboa in Panama City, my cellphone dropped from the side pocket of my shorts. I discovered it missing an hour later as I approached my hotel, rushed back to the park, couldn’t find it, and beat myself up silently for doing such a dumb thing. I was upset enough not to want to talk to anybody, even Gabrielle, who was with a friend out of town. The next morning the hotel phone in my room rang. It was Gabrielle. “Did you lose your phone?” she asked. “You didn’t call me.” She paused. “Well somebody found it.” A woman named Ilma picked up the phone, dialed Gabrielle’s number, and made arrangements for me to retrieve the phone at a restaurant near the airport, after her morning at church. Ilma and her husband showed up at the appointed hour, handed me the phone, and refused to accept anything from me other than a smile and a hug in gratitude. TIP — this is Panama.
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