Conservation groups sued the Federal Aviation Administration [last] Monday, challenging its approval of expanded rocket launch operations by Elon Musk’s SpaceX next to a national wildlife refuge in South Texas without requiring greater environmental study.
The lawsuit comes 11 days after SpaceX made good on a new FAA license to send its next-generation Starship rocket on its first test flight, ending with the vehicle exploding over the Gulf of Mexico after blasting the launchpad to ruins on liftoff.
The shattering force of the launch hurled chunks of reinforced concrete and metal shrapnel thousands of feet from the site, adjacent to the Lower Rio Grand Valley National Wildlife Refuge near Boca Chica State Park and Beach.
The blast also ignited a 3.5-acre (1.4-hectare) brush fire and sent a cloud of pulverized concrete drifting 6.5 miles (10.5 km) to the northwest and raining down over tidal flats and the nearby town of Port Isabel, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
SpaceX hailed the launch as a qualified success that will yield valuable data to advance development of its Starship and Super Heavy rocket, major components in NASA’s new Artemis program for returning astronauts to the moon.
But Monday’s lawsuit said the April 20 incident marked the latest in a series of at least nine explosive mishaps at Boca Chica, disrupting a haven for federally protected wildlife and vital habitat for migratory birds.
Noise, light pollution, construction and road traffic also degrade the area, home to endangered ocelots and jaguarundis, as well as nesting sites for endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles and critical habitat for threatened shorebirds, the suit says.
The disturbances show the FAA violated federal law by permitting expanded operations at Musk’s Starbase in Boca Chica without mandating the full environmental impact study (EIS) normally required for major projects, the lawsuit asserts.
The 31-page complaint seeks to revoke the FAA license and require an EIS.
The FAA’s chief of staff for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation had stated in a June 2020 email that the agency planned to conduct an EIS, but the FAA “subsequently deferred to SpaceX” and performed a less rigorous review instead, according to the lawsuit.
SpaceX had vigorously opposed subjecting its Starbase to an EIS review, a process that typically takes years. An EIS involves extensive analysis of the project at stake and alternatives, along with mitigation plans to curb or offset harmful impacts. It also entails public review and comment and often re-evaluation and supplemental study.
The FAA granted its license following a far less thorough environmental assessment and a finding that SpaceX activities at Boca Chica pose “no significant impact” on the environment. The lawsuit challenges that finding as a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, contending that the assessment and mitigation measures incorporated into the license fall short of the law’s requirements.
According to the Associated Press, Musk “said his company could be ready to launch the next Starship in six to eight weeks with the FAA’s OK”. Requiring an EIS would be a big kink in those plans.
The Trib adds some more detail.
The lawsuit was filed in Washington, D.C., on Monday by five plaintiffs, including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas. The groups argue that the FAA, which authorizes rocket launches, should have conducted an in-depth environmental impact assessment before allowing SpaceX to proceed with its plans and claim the agency delegated that task to SpaceX.
They are asking the court to suspend SpaceX’s five-year license, granted by the FAA.
“We want to see the FAA cancel the permits until they’ve figured out how they can either minimize or at least mitigate the environmental damage the rockets are doing,” said Michael Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy.
The goal of the lawsuit is to protect wildlife and front-line communities, Parr said. Shorebirds such as piping plovers that live near the SpaceX facility are sensitive to the heat, noise and smoke from the rocket launches, he said.
The Boca Chica area is biologically diverse, the groups state in the lawsuit, and an essential habitat to many species, including federally protected wildlife such as migratory birds.
“It’s vital that we protect life on Earth even as we look to the stars in this modern era of space flight,” Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a written statement. “Federal officials should defend vulnerable wildlife and frontline communities, not give a pass to corporate interests that want to use treasured coastal landscapes as a dumping ground for space waste.”
Juan Mancias, chair of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, said the FAA also failed to consider that the land SpaceX chose for its launch site is sacred to his tribe, which he calls “the original people” of that land. SpaceX’s facility has made it harder for the tribe to access the beach, hold traditional ceremonies and leave offerings to their ancestors, according to the lawsuit.
“We’re humans. We have a human right to take care of our lands and our villages and all they’re doing is digging up our bones and digging up our ceremonial sites,” Mancias said.
I’ll keep an eye on this one. The Musk/SpaceX history with Boca Chica Village goes back a few years and has been a mixed bag for the area. Musk is now trying to claim another piece of Texas for himself. What could possibly go wrong? TPR, CNBC, and the Current have more.