Following fiery blast, groups call for formal FAA environmental study of SpaceX facility

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McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Seven environmental groups are calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to launch a full-scale environmental study on the SpaceX Texas Launch Facility after a massive, fiery rocket engine explosion and reports of unauthorized testing projects whose impacts are unknown.

In a joint letter to three administrators at the FAA, the groups accuse the agency of failing to regulate the frequent rocket tests and activities conducted by SpaceX, which have resulted in brush fires and a May 29 explosion, which Border Report caught on camera near Boca Chica Beach in South Texas.

The letter calls the agency’s enforcement of the SpaceX facility “inadequate” and calls for a formal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a process that could take several months and would include studying soil and water samples, economic losses to the region, effects on humans and wildlife, and would require that public hearings be held.

The groups said that a 2014 EIS by the FAA is now obsolete because the multi-million-dollar facility is now testing its new Starship prototype there — a massive spacecraft nearly 400 feet tall that is being designed to launch humans to Mars. The company is apparently not testing or launching its Falcon9 or Falcon Heavy rocket, for which the company had gotten approval from the FAA to test and launch from this facility in 2014, according to its most recent paperwork filed with the FAA.

“SpaceX’s actions now are significantly different and greater in scope than the project the FAA authorized in its 2014 Record of Decision (ROD), and these actions are having significantly greater human and environmental impacts,” the letter emailed July 3 reads. “Most of the 2014 data and analysis is now not only invalid but wrong and misleading. The construction, testing and firing of the massive Starship and Heavy Booster will have much greater impacts.”

Space enthusiasts look at a prototype of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft at the company’s Texas launch facility on September 28, 2019 in Boca Chica near Brownsville, Texas. The Starship spacecraft is a massive vehicle meant to take people to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. (Photo by Loren Elliott/Getty Images)

“In light of all the things that have already gone wrong at the SpaceX facility, it’s really clear that we need a deeper level of analysis before allowing them to carry on with their testing,” Laiken Jordahl of the Center for Biological Diversity told Border Report on Tuesday.

EXCLUSIVE: SpaceX facility under FAA review after changing rocket tests in South Texas

Jim Chapman is president of the nonprofit group Friends of the Wildlife Corridor. He is seen near Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in South Texas on June 1, 2020. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which is based in Arizona, was among the signatories on the letter, which also included representatives from the following nonprofits: Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, Save RGV; Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Reserve; Defenders of Wildlife; Frontera Audubon Society, and the Lower Rio Grande Sierra Club.

Jim Chapman, president of the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, told Border Report on Tuesday that the group sent the letter after an FAA official told them last week that it was going to do some kind of environmental assessment but the agency had not committed to a full-scale EIS. The 5-acre launch facility is located just feet from where endangered sea turtles lay eggs and near a wildlife refuge.

“The reason for the letter is really to urge the FAA to do a new EIS because SpaceX has completely changed its mission at Boca Chica and the impacts not only are going to be different but they are going to be greater so the old EIS is really at this point obsolete because it’s really a very different project right now,” Chapman said.

In a story published Wednesday, an FAA official told Border Report the agency was beginning an environmental investigation into the goings-on at the SpaceX Texas Launch Facility. The agency also said the company did not have FAA approval to launch the Starship spacecraft from that facility.

Chapman says the groups want an EIS conducted because only an EIS requires public hearings and a formal public commenting period, which would allow South Texans the opportunity to voice concerns they have about this facility.

“The footprint out there is much greater than they said it was going to be when they did their 2014 EIS and that’s obvious when you go out there,” Chapman said. “It’s now a testing facility for the biggest rocket the United States has ever made.”

It’s now a testing facility for the biggest rocket the United States has ever made.”

Jim Chapman, president of the nonprofit group Friends of the Wildlife Corridor

On June 6, SpaceX CEO and Founder Elon Musk tweeted that the facility is now the company’s “Starship Production Complex” and he posted this aerial photograph of the growing complex.

When SpaceX first approached the South Texas community about opening a launch facility in 2013, company officials stressed it would only be used for up to 12 launches per year. Local residents tell Border Report that repeated rocket and engine tests were never discussed to them during public hearings held in May 2014. But many say they now feel duped by the company, which is based in Hawthorne, Calif., because dozens of tests are conducted at the facility each year, forcing the frequent closures of the only main road to their homes and a popular beach.

Environmentalists say they are especially concerned about the effects that heat can have on the Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, as well as birds like the piping plover.

Boca Chica Beach, Texas, less than a half-mile from the SpaceX launch pad at its Texas Launch Facility, is where many sea turtles lay eggs. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“SpaceX is operating in one of the most pristine stretches of the Texas coast, in an area that is rich with biological diversity and home to numerous endangered species, including ocelot and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles,” said Paul Sanchez-Navarro of Defenders of Wildlife. “We need the FAA to do its due diligence as a regulatory agency and ensure that the company minimizes and mitigates the impacts of its project on this special place.”

“The fact is that we won’t know the harms of this expansion till they are studied so it is irresponsible to allow this testing to continue without studying the impacts,” Jordahl said.

Border Report has reached out to the FAA and SpaceX for comments on this story and will update this story if any responses are received.

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