Dispute Erupts Over SpaceX’s Boca Chica Test Facility

Elon Musk (center) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry break ground on a new launch complex. (Credit: Texas Governor’s Office)

A dispute has erupted between several environmental groups and the federal government over the impact of SpaceX’s test operations at Boca Chica Beach in south Texas.

The issue: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved SpaceX’s plan to use the coastal site for launching its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets up to 12 times per year.

However, Elon Musk’s company has instead been using its facilities to develop and flight test its larger Starship and Super Heavy boosters. The resulting impacts have been much greater than anticipated under the original proposal, environmental groups argue.

The Brownsville Herald reports:

Instead, the site has become the locus of SpaceX’s ambitious Starship development program. This has involved round-the-clock construction of Starship prototype components, expansion of the company’s build yard and launch/test pad facilities, preparations to build the Starship’s “Super Heavy” booster stage, and frequent closures of Boca Chica Beach and State Highway 4 for testing — well beyond what 12 or fewer launches a year would have called for.

The company’s activities have also involved the kinds of events one would expect where experimental spacecraft development is underway, including disruptive prototype failures and so far one genuine explosion, which occurred on May 29 when Starship prototype SN4 was destroyed on the test stand in a massive fireball.

The FAA has said that a new environmental assessment (EA) is being conducted to assess the effects these operations are having on the local environment, which include sensitive coastal wildlife areas.

Environmental groups, however, believe that an EA is insufficient given the impacts on the area.

Jim Chapman, president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor and the main drafter of the July 3 letter to the FAA, told The Brownsville Herald that an EA is insufficient considering the magnitude of SpaceX’s impact and that SpaceX should perform the more rigorous Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) instead. Further, it’s not up to SpaceX to decide which type of review to conduct, as the FAA contends, but rather the agency itself, Chapman said.

The July 3 letter to the FAA was signed by Chapman and representatives of the environmental groups Save RGV, Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Defenders of Wildlife, Frontera Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club Group. It urged the FAA to “develop a new or supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for SpaceX’s current and planned actions at their Boca Chica site.”

The interest part is the claim that the FAA has allowed SpaceX to decide what type of environmental review to conduct.

Chapman wrote back to the FAA in response to the agency’s July 17 letter and argued that it is the FAA, not the applicant [SpaceX], who decides whether to pursue an EA or an EIS. He quoted an FAA policy that states: “Once the FAA determines that NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] applies to a proposed action, it needs to decide on the appropriate level of review.” The three levels of NEPA review are a Categorical Exclusion, an EA or an EIS, according to the policy.

Under an EA, the review could bypass the public.

“The other thing is that with an EIS public participation is mandatory,” Chapman said. “There will be a public hearing and there will be a public comment period. With an EA, that’s all optional. If the agency wants to they can open it up to public comment or have a public meeting, but they don’t have to. There’s no law that says that that’s required. This needs public participation.”