FAA decision on SpaceX launch facility has ‘no bite’, say environmentalists

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In a tweet, Elon Musk downplays the need to protect ocelots in RGV

McALLEN, Texas (border report) – Appalled, environmentalists have criticized the Federal Aviation Administration, saying it has not imposed enough regulations on SpaceX, which is now set to launch its Starship/Super Heavy spacecraft from South Texas.

On Monday the FAA issued a finding with no significant impact (FONSI) on the agency’s environmental review of SpaceX’s request to launch Earth’s largest known spacecraft from the rural South Texas border beach of Boca Chica. The agency also ordered the company to perform 75 actions to mitigate environmental impacts before a launch license could be issued.

But environmentalists and legal experts told Border Report on Tuesday that the majority of the actions cited relate to public access to the beach for people and that they do not believe it will prevent or reverse the damage already done to the environment. or to the local habitat or species that nest and live in the area. Rather, they say, the orders are more like an action plan for what to do in future emergencies, which they say is unavoidable when testing explosive rockets.

“It’s after the fact so that we can monitor and put in place a response plan. It’s not attenuation. That’s what a developer should do in these kinds of situations,” Jared Margolis, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, told Border Report. “We wanted to see more about land and land to protect habitats and species.”

A sign warning residents to protect nesting sea turtles sits on the beach in Boca Chica, Texas, a quarter mile from the SpaceX South Texas launch facility. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Margolis says environmental mitigation should include specific land set aside to protect habitat and species from adverse effects associated with rocket launches.

“The real mitigation is, ‘We’re going to impact these many hectares of habitat for these many species,'” Margolis said. “It’s window dressing.”

He added that citations are “unenforceable” without quantitative guidelines. “So there’s no bite,” he said.

“It’s pretty meaningless,” said Jim Chapman, vice president of nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor and member of SaveRGV, which sued the state for allowing SpaceX to close the beach. of Boca Chica for SpaceX launches.

“Like needing a qualified biologist to have all the massive destruction documented without mitigating the impact, they’re just documenting it, so what will they do to mitigate the impact?” Chapman told Border Report.

The FAA, however, in a written statement to Border Report said this record of decision is only part of the launch license application process and does not guarantee that Starship rocket launches will occur.

“Completion of the environmental process does not guarantee that the FAA will issue a launch license. SpaceX’s application must also meet the FAA’s safety, risk, and financial accountability requirements. The FAA will only determine the license after SpaceX provides all outstanding information and the agency can analyze it in detail,” an FAA official wrote in an email.

This screen grab from the video shows the explosion at SpaceX’s South Texas Test Facility near Boca Chica Beach, Texas.
An explosion of a SpaceX test rocket is seen May 30, 2020 in Boca Chica, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

FAA mitigation requirements for SpaceX in the 43-page summary include:

  • Continuous monitoring of vegetation and fauna by a qualified biologist.
  • Inform surrounding communities in advance of potential noise from launch engines and sonic booms.
  • Coordinate with state or federal agencies to remove launch debris from sensitive habitats.
  • Adjusted lighting at Launch Complex to minimize impact to wildlife and nearby beach.
  • Work with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service within 60 days of the start of construction to identify practical opportunities to protect, restore, and/or enhance habitat for ocelot, jaguarundi, piping plover, and/or sandpipers knot.

SpaceX is also required to make a $5,000 annual contribution to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge’s Adopt-an-Ocelot program.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk speaks at the SATELLITE Conference and Expo in Washington, Monday, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

But in a tweet on Tuesday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk appeared to disparage the validity of the donation to ocelots in the Rio Grande Valley and questioned whether the endangered species was even on Boca Beach. Chica.

“I’m told no ocelots have been seen in the Boca Chica area for about 40 years,,” Musk tweeted. “We have many motion-activated cameras around Starbase – thousands of clips of coyotes, dogs and cats, but no ocelots.”

Margolis said an endangered species like the ocelot is very difficult to spot and tends to avoid areas where there are loud noises and lots of human activity.

“Part of the fact that they don’t see them is because of the activity that SpaceX is already doing there,” Margolis said. “Why not protect other lands, other migration corridors essential to the species when the use of these lands by SpaceX prevents them from using them?”

This is exactly what the Center for Biological Diversity was concerned about when it submitted comments in November to the FAA calling for stricter environmental oversight, writing, “We are concerned about the impacts of SpaceX activities at the Boca site. Chica, particularly given the sensitive ecosystems and species at risk that are directly impacted by the proposed activities. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a duty to ensure that SpaceX’s exploration efforts do not come at the expense and undue sacrifice of our current home and the wildlife that depends on the habitat in the area of Boca Chica.

Jim Chapman is vice-president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor. He is seen on February 2, 2022 in Alamo, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Chapman said this environmental assessment was not thorough enough and his group and other environmentalists argue that an environmental impact statement (EIA) is really necessary to assess a project of this size and scope.

“The actual physical impacts of testing, launching and exploding the largest rocket ever created on Earth are still going to be very significant, so they should do an EIS,” Chapman told Border Report. “We said from day one that they needed to do an EIS and we’re saying it today.”

The FAA decided to allow SpaceX to select the type of environmental assessment the company deemed necessary and chose the less stringent environmental assessment over an EIA. This process took a year and the final decision was delayed several times before Monday’s release.

Musk said launching the spacecraft was essential for travel to the moon and Mars.

In a tweet Tuesday after the FAA’s announcement, he said the company seemed closer to that goal.

“For the very first time, there is a rocket capable of establishing permanent bases on the Moon and on Mars”, Musk tweeted.

A lawsuit filed by SaveRGV against the Texas General Land Office for closing Boca Chica beach to public use for SpaceX test launches is scheduled to be heard Wednesday in Brownsville, Texas, and Border District Court. Report plans to cover the hearing.

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