The Panama Canal Authority, or ACP, confirmed Thursday that it has held talks with other potential contractors as it prepares for the possible Monday suspension of work on an expansion project, although it said it still hopes to resolve a financial dispute with the consortium building a third set of locks for the waterway.
Canal administrator Jorge Quijano told reporters after a meeting with Panama's APEDE business executives' association that he would not reveal the names of the companies he had spoken with "until we're ready to act."
"We're prepared for that eventuality, (but) we're still holding out hope that the (GUPC) reconsiders," Quijano said, referring to the consortium led by Spain's Sacyr that was awarded the contract for the locks project in 2009.
Quijano met later Thursday with Sacyr Chairman Manuel Manrique and representatives of two of the other three members of the consortium: Belgium's Jan de Nul and Panama's CUSA.
An agreement was reached during the meeting to "keep communication channels open over the next several days" to resolve the dispute, according to an official statement.
The GUPC - also made up of Italy's Impregilo, which like Sacyr has a 48 percent stake in the consortium - said earlier this month that it would suspend work on the locks project on Jan. 20 if the ACP did not agree to pay an extra $1.6 billion to cover cost overruns.
Quijano told reporters Thursday morning that the contractors had not yet presented a "positive" proposal for resolving the conflict, reiterating that the offer the canal authority presented on Jan. 7 to resolve the impasse still stood.
The ACP said then it would advance the GUPC $100 million and give the consortium a grace period of two months to repay a previous advance of $83 million, provided the contractors also put up $100 million and withdraw their threat to suspend work.
The proposal was presented after a meeting between the ACP and GUPC was held at the urging of Spanish Development Minister Ana Pastor, who traveled to Panama as part of Madrid's efforts to mediate the dispute.
The GUPC countered by calling on the ACP to fork out an advance of between $400 million and $1 billion, a proposal Quijano rejected as outside the terms of the contract.
The contract for the locks, which is the centerpiece of a $5.25 billion canal expansion, calls for the ACP to pay the consortium a total of $3.12 billion.
So far, the ACP has paid GUPC $2.83 billion, including repayable advances, plus an additional $180 million for cost overruns.
The contract provides for independent arbitration of disputes that GUCP and the canal authority can't resolve through negotiations.
The Panama Canal, which was designed in 1904 for ships with a 267-meter (875-foot) length and 28-meter (92-foot) beam, is too small to handle modern ships that are three times as big, making a third set of locks essential. EFE