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SpaceX: Conservationists sue over 'shortcut' environmental review for Starship launch

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, left, and Haley Esparza, ride horseback as they visit SpaceX's Starship, 19 April 19 2023.
NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, left, and Haley Esparza, ride horseback as they visit SpaceX's Starship, 19 April 19 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Eric Gay
Copyright AP Photo/Eric Gay
By Angela Symons with Reuters
Published on Updated
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Locals speak out on environmental damage caused by 'concrete rain' as environmental groups sue the FAA over licensing.

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Environmental groups are suing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for approving SpaceX's rocket launch next to a South Texan wildlife refuge. 

On 20 April, SpaceX’s giant new rocket exploded minutes after blasting off on its first test flight.

At liftoff, the rocket kicked up huge plumes of sand and dust around the pad, hurling reinforced concrete and metal shrapnel thousands of metres from the site. 

In Port Isabel, about six kilometres away, particles of pulverised concrete covered cars and other surfaces. One local business suffered a shattered window. The blast also ignited a 1.4-hectare brush fire.

Starship reached a maximum speed of about 2,100 kph and went as high as 39 kilometres before going sideways and exploding over the Gulf of Mexico. Its launchpad was blasted to ruins.

Conservationists are criticising what they say was an inadequate environmental study prior to the launch.

What was the fallout of SpaceX’s Starship launch?

Images posted on social media showed cars and benches in south Texas covered in what people were calling “rocket dust” and “concrete rain”.

Close to the launch site, videos showed large pieces of debris hurtling through the air.

On the launch date, the city of Port Isabel confirmed on its Facebook page that “the dust that fell this morning in Port Isabel was sand and soil from near the SpaceX launch site that was lofted (sic) into the air by the force of lift off.”

The county judge, Eddie Trevino, ordered Boca Chica Beach - where the rocket was launched from - and a nearby highway to be temporarily closed on Thursday and Friday “due to anomaly clean-up efforts”.

The environmental impact of SpaceX in Boca Chica

The impact of SpaceX’s operations in Boca Chica were analysed in a 2014 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Despite some experts arguing the project’s scope had changed significantly since then, a new EIS was not deemed necessary by the FAA, which said in June that the rocket would have “no significant impact” on people living in the area.

Instead, a faster and less comprehensive Programmatic Environmental Assessment was carried out.

Some experts warned that the permitting process for SpaceX’s Starship launch was rushed and based on a smaller design than was eventually used.

As a result, the “damage to the community and the environment predicted are certainly understated, inadequate, and inaccurate,” environmental engineer Eric Roesch predicted on his ESG Hound blog ahead of the launch.

Port Isabel and Padre Island are just 8 km from the SpaceX launch site, whereas the nearest cities to NASA’s supersized rocket launch site are 24 km away, Roesch notes.

On 1 May, these concerns were raised in a lawsuit that noted at least eight other explosive mishaps at Boca Chica. Complainants from the Center for Biological Diversity, among others, argued that the FAA violated federal law by permitting expanded operations at the SpaceX base without mandating the full EIS usually required for major projects.

The lawsuit seeks to revoke the FAA license and require an EIS.

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SpaceX founder Elon Musk said at an event on Saturday (29 April) that the debris was "not toxic at all" and likened it to "a human-made sandstorm". 

“It did scatter a lot of dust," he admitted, "but to the best of our knowledge, there has not been any meaningful damage to the environment that we’re aware of."

Boca Chica is home to vulnerable species

The SpaceX site is surrounded by state and federally protected lands, including delicate ecosystems and national wildlife refuges including Lower Rio Grand Valley.

Various citizens raised concerns with the FAA about the rocket launch’s impact on wildlife

In spring, Boca Chica beach welcomes nesting Kemp’s ridley sea turtles and is home to endangered ocelot wild cats. It is also a critical and sensitive bird habitat that shelters many endangered species.

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Analysis by Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, which supports sustainable development in the area, showed that the threatened Piping Plover bird population decreased by 54 per cent between 2018 - when SpaceX started launching rockets in the area - and 2021, though it is unclear whether the decline is related to SpaceX.

Following the launch, the organisation noted that biologists were still being refused access to the site, preventing them from assessing the latest damage.

Texan non-profit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor also notes that SpaceX has caused two fires, so far. The first burned 60 hectares, while the second was about 4.5 hectares and damaged sensitive dunes.

They say that retrieval of debris in the areas surrounding rocket launches involves heavy equipment that scars the land. The site has also increased traffic, road closures, noise and light pollution in the area.

Indigenous groups oppose SpaceX’s plans

Some locals, along with the city of Port Isabel, have also raised concerns about the rocket launch site’s proximity to SpaceX’s planned liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals.

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“It’s an issue we’ve raised, and part of the reason we continue to oppose the location of these LNG facilities,” Port Isabel replied to a comment on its Facebook page.

Members of the Indigenous Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe denounced both the rocket launch and the LNG plans during a protest near the launch site.

They say that they have not been consulted or given consent for the “destruction of Native homelands”, calling it “colonial genocide”.

Prior to the launch, 27 organisations representing environmental and Indigenous groups clubbed together to oppose it.

“A billionaire is closing our beach to use the land to test his experimental technology putting the lives of locals at risk while destroying acres of a wildlife reserve,” reads a statement from Sierra Club Brownsville organiser, Emma Guevara.

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“Who will be held accountable for the destruction this company consistently causes when the government continues to ignore community members’ very real and very serious concerns?”

What's next for SpaceX?

Musk has said SpaceX plans to install a water-cooling system and steel reinforcements for the launchpad to prevent a repeat of blastoff damage. He says it could be ready for another test flight of the rocket, the most powerful ever built, in the next couple of months.

For the time being, the Starship and the Super Heavy rocket are effectively grounded under a 'mishap' investigation opened by the FAA immediately after the launch, as required by law.

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