FAA Sued by Environmentalists Over SpaceX’s Rocket Launch License for Texas


Conservation groups sued the Federal Aviation Administration on 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 federal court lawsuit comes 11 days after SpaceX made good on a newly granted FAA license to send its next-generation Starship rocket on its first test flight, a mission that ended with the vehicle exploding over the Gulf of Mexico after blasting the launchpad to ruins on liftoff.

The shattering force of the launch hurled large chunks of reinforced concrete and metal shrapnel thousands of feet from the launch site, located adjacent to the Lower Rio Grand Valley National Wildlife Refuge near Boca Chica State Park and Beach in Texas.

The blast also ignited a 3.5-acre (1.4-hectare) fire on nearby grounds and sent a cloud of pulverized concrete drifting 6.5 miles to the northwest, raining over surrounding tidal flats and the nearby town of Port Isabel, according to the US 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, designed as major components in NASA‘s newly inaugurated 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 in recent years that are disrupting a haven for federally protected wildlife and vital habitat for migratory birds.

Intense noise and light pollution, construction and road traffic also have degraded the area, home to two endangered feline predators — the ocelot and jaguarundi — as well as nesting sites for the endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, and critical habitat for the piping plover, a threatened shorebird, the plaintiffs say.

The area and its wildlife are also considered sacred to the people of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation, an indigenous group in South Texas.

The disturbances show that 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.

There was no immediate comment on the court case available from the FAA or SpaceX.

Short-cut environmental review?

Such EIS reviews typically take years, even decades, to complete. They involve extensive analysis of the project at stake and alternatives, along with mitigation plans to curb or offset harmful impacts. The process also entails public review and comment and often re-evaluation and supplemental study. 

Instead, the FAA granted its license on the basis of a far less thorough environmental assessment and a finding that SpaceX activities at Boca Chica pose “no significant impact” on the environment.

The lawsuit highlights a history of tension between environmentalists, who have sought to limit development at Boca Chica, and Musk, the billionaire SpaceX founder and CEO known as a hard-charging entrepreneur willing to take risks. 

“This case concerns whether the nation’s commitment to preserving our critical wildlife habitat and treasured coastal landscapes must be sacrificed as we reach out to explore the cosmos,” the lawsuit said.

The 31-page suit was brought in federal court in the District of Columbia by the Center for Biological Diversity, the American Bird Conservancy, Surfrider Foundation, Save RGV (Rio Grand Valley), and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation.

The plaintiffs seek a court order vacating the finding of no significant impact and requiring a full EIS before further launches are conducted.

© Thomson Reuters 2023

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