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Panama Canal Safety Concerns Raised After Near-Collision Incident with Containership at Locks
By Sea and Coast | 11/03/2023
On Sunday, March 5, 2023, the Panama Canal was almost the site of a catastrophic collision that could have caused significant supply chain disruptions. The Hong Kong-flagged containership OOCL Utah had a near-miss with a lock gate at the Agua Clara locks, raising concerns about the safety of the canal. Experts are now warning that the incident highlights a lack of proper regulations and procedures that could lead to a costly and tragic accident.
The incident involved the "alpha" tug in the foreposition almost being crushed between the vessel and the lock gate. Video footage of the incident shows how the tug narrowly avoided being crushed, which could have led to a tragic and costly accident. Experts are now calling for better procedures and regulations to prevent future incidents.
The Panama Canal Captains and Deck Officers Union has come forward to highlight a lack of proper procedures and under-resourcing by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), which is putting the pilots at risk. The pilots are paid per vessel, which leads them to complete assignments quickly to earn more money. The lack of procedures and regulations allows them to do whatever they want, which could lead to serious accidents in the future.
The union has claimed that there have been several incidents over the past two years, including a tug being put aground and another being put on the rocks and out for repair for three months. They allege that pilots often try to tackle the canal at speeds higher than what is safe for tug crews, which puts the crew in danger due to the enclosed space and the size of the ship. They have warned that the tugs themselves are death traps and that a collision could lead to someone being sucked under.
If a collision had occurred with the lock gate, it could have put the waterway out of action for months, causing supply chain disruptions comparable to the Ever Given incident at Suez in March 2021. The union claims that there is no equipment to lift the gate, and they do not know how to fix that problem, leading to significant supply chain disruptions in the event of a serious incident.
The union is pushing for better resourcing and better-equipped tugs to prevent future incidents. They claim that there are not enough crew to cover the needs of the canal, leading to crews working in excess of 16 hours a day, seven days a week, with no mandated rest periods. The union has also highlighted a lack of maintenance of the tugs and personnel, warning that fatigue is a significant concern.
The incident involving the OOCL Utah comes as the ACP is implementing a new "disruption charge" of up to $250,000 in the event of a serious incident. This new charge is aimed at ensuring that vessel operators take responsibility for accidents that occur on the canal. However, experts warn that urgent action is needed to prevent a tragic and costly accident from occurring. The ACP has so far declined to respond to requests for comment.