McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Dismayed, environmentalists criticized the Federal Aviation Administration, saying it has not imposed enough regulations on SpaceX, which is now a step closer to launching its Starship/Super Heavy spacecraft from South Texas.
On Monday the FAA issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) on the agency’s environmental review of SpaceX’s request to launch the largest spacecraft known to Earth 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 actions cited relate to public access to the beach for people and they don’t believe it will prevent or repair the harm that has already been done to the local environment or habitat or species that nest and live in the region. Rather, they say, the orders are more like an action plan of what to do in future emergencies, which they say is inevitable when testing exploding rockets.
“It’s after-the-fact so we can monitor and have a response plan in place. That’s not mitigation. That’s what a developer should be doing in these sorts of situations,” Jared Margolis, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told Border Report. “We wanted to see more on the grounds and lands to protect habitats and species.”
Margolis says environmental mitigation should include specific land set aside to protect habitat and species from harmful effects associated with rocket launches.
“True mitigation is, ‘We’re going to impact this many acres of habitat for these many species,'” Margolis said. “This is window dressing.”
He added that the citations are “unenforceable” without quantitative directives. “So there’s no teeth to it,” he said.
“It’s pretty meaningless,” said Jim Chapman, vice president of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor and a member of SaveRGV, which has sued the state for allowing SpaceX to close Boca Chica Beach for SpaceX launches.
“Like having to have a qualified biologist so all the tremendous destruction will be documented that doesn’t lessen the impact it just documents it so what will they do to lessen the impact?” Chapman told Border Report.
The FAA, however, in a written statement to Border Report said this Record of Decision is just one part of the launch license application process and does not guarantee rocket launches of the Starship will occur.
“The completion of the environmental process does not guarantee that the FAA will issue a launch license. SpaceX’s application also must meet FAA safety, risk and financial responsibility requirements. The FAA will make a license determination only after SpaceX provides all outstanding information and the agency can fully analyze it,” an FAA official wrote in an email.
FAA mitigation requirements for SpaceX in the 43-page executive summary include:
- Ongoing monitoring of vegetation and wildlife by a qualified biologist.
- Notifying surrounding communities in advance about potential engine noise and sonic booms from launches.
- Coordinating with state or federal agencies to remove launch debris from sensitive habitats.
- Adjusting lighting at the launch complex to minimize impact on wildlife and the nearby beach.
- Working with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service within 60 days of the start of construction to identify practicable opportunities to protect, restore and/or enhance habitat for the ocelot, jaguarundi, piping plover and/or red knot bird.
SpaceX also must make an annual contribution of $5,000 to the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge Adopt-an-Ocelot Program.
But in a tweet Tuesday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk seemed to disparage the validity of donating to ocelots in the Rio Grande Valley and questioned whether the endangered species is even on Boca Chica Beach.
“I’m told that no ocelot has been seen in the Boca Chica area for ~40 years,” Musk tweeted. “We have many motion-activated cameras around Starbase – thousands of clips of coyotes, dogs & cats, but no ocelots.”
Margolis said an endangered species like the ocelot is very hard to spot and tends to avoid areas where there are loud noises and lots of human activity.
“The fact they aren’t seeing them in part is because of activity SpaceX is already doing there,” Margolis said. “Why not protect other lands, other migration corridors that are essential to the species when SpaceX use of this land is preventing them from using it?”
This is exactly what the Center for Biological Diversity was concerned with when it submitted comments in November to the FAA urging stricter environmental oversight, writing: “We are concerned about the impacts of SpaceX’s activities at the Boca Chica site, particularly given the sensitive ecosystems and imperiled species that are directly affected by the proposed activities. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a duty to ensure that SpaceX’s exploratory efforts do not come at the expense and undue sacrifice of our current home and the wildlife that relies on the habitat in the Boca Chica area.”
Chapman said this Environmental Assessment was not thorough enough and his group and other environmentalists maintain that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) really is needed to evaluate 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 have said from Day 1 they need to do an EIS and we’re saying that today.”
The FAA decided to allow SpaceX to select the type of environmental assessment the company deemed necessary and they chose the lesser stringent Environmental Assessment over an EIS. This process has taken a year and the final ruling was delayed several times before Monday’s release.
Musk has said launching the Starship is essential for travel to the moon and Mars.
In a tweet Tuesday, after the FAA’s announcement, he said the company appears closer to that goal.
“For the first time ever, there is a rocket capable of establishing permanent bases on the moon and Mars,” Musk tweeted.
A lawsuit filed by SaveRGV against the Texas General Land Office for closing Boca Chica Beach from public use for SpaceX test launches is scheduled to be heard Wednesday in state district court in Brownsville, Texas, and Border Report plans to cover the hearing.