As the Panama Canal expansion project nears completion, it casts a light on problems with U.S. ports that need to be addressed. Indeed, although the canal’s locks are nearly finished and the ship to pass through on the inauguration day has been selected, there are still concerns that U.S. ports aren’t deep enough and the infrastructure necessary to accommodate larger, so-called “neo-Panamax” vessels isn’t sufficient. It is increasingly difficult to address those challenges because community groups and local activists are protesting—and filing lawsuits against—port expansion that threatens coastal ecosystems and may potentially lead to dangerously high emissions levels from growing port traffic.


The $5.2 billion expansion of the 48-mile Panama Canal is expected to be finished soon. Last month, COSCO Shipping won the Panama Canal Authority’s draw for the first transit through the expanded canal on its inauguration June 26. Its container vessel Andronikos, which has a maximum capacity of 9,400 TEUs, will make the trip. Furthermore, reservations have already been made for more than 100 neo-Panamax ships to make commercial transit through the new locks, beginning June 27.


The problem is that although U.S. ports—and those on the Eastern coast in particular—are spending billions of dollars on harbor dredging, bridge raising, new roads and rail lines and other projects so they can accommodate larger ocean vessels, neighboring communities increasingly push back against such efforts. Shippers, railroads, trucking companies and others contend that opposition to such efforts only increases costs and delays the construction of infrastructure needed to handle rising trade volumes and alleviate congestion. On the other hand, community groups and local activists counter that unchecked seaport expansion has damaged coastal ecosystems and brings a threat of dangerously high emissions levels from trucks, trains and ships entering the ports.


For example, in March, residents of communities near the Port of Los Angeles won a legal battle against Burlington Northern Santa Fe that halted a new rail-yard project serving the port, an article in the Wall Street Journal reports. The ruling found the railroad hadn’t adequately addressed the impact of emissions, traffic and noise pollution in local neighborhoods. As the article further notes, BNSF executives have since said they’re uncertain whether the project is still feasible.


“Until there’s pressure from outside, ports and industry stakeholders will not clean up unilaterally,” Melissa Lin Perrella, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has filed lawsuits against several port and transportation infrastructure projects citing the dangers to public health, says in the WSJ article. “It usually requires intense community pressure.”


Most port officials say stopping development altogether isn’t an option because improvements are necessary to handle the projected growth in cargo volumes. From 2000 to 2015, container trade through the nation’s ports grew 78 percent to 32 million 20-foot equivalent units, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration. What’s more, over the next five years, seaports and their private-sector partners plan to spend $155 billion on port improvements—more than triple what they estimated five years ago, according to the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA).


Adding necessary port capacity while maintaining the health and safety of neighboring communities is “a balancing act,” Michele Grubbs, a lobbyist with the industry group Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, says in the WSJ article. “When you’re dealing with limited space and operating next to a community, you’re always going to have challenges between being a good neighbor and accommodating the future growth of trade.”


Given the growth in cargo traffic as well as new, larger ships, most U.S. ports need at least some development. What are your thoughts on balancing port expansion with environmental concerns as well as health of neighboring communities?