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FAA, SpaceX Seek to Have Starbase Lawsuit Dismissed

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
July 6, 2023
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FAA, SpaceX Seek to Have Starbase Lawsuit Dismissed
Starship lifts off from Starbase in Texas.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and SpaceX are seeking the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental groups and an Native American nation that wants Starship/Super Heavy rocket launches from the Starbase spaceport in Texas suspended until a new environmental review of the area is conducted.

In separate responses to the lawsuit filed on Friday, the FAA and SpaceX claim the plaintiffs “have failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted” and lack any standing to sue. The responses also claim that the plaintiffs have failed to exhaust unspecified administrative remedies before filing the lawsuit.

SpaceX is also claiming that “plaintiffs’ claim is barred in whole or in part under the doctrine of laches.” Oxford Languages defines laches as an “unreasonable delay in making an assertion or claim, such as asserting a right, claiming a privilege, or making an application for redress, which may result in refusal.”

SpaceX's Starship is tested on the launch pad at Starbase in Texas.
Starship and Super Heavy fueled for the first time. (Credit: SpaceX)

On May 1, a group of environmental organizations and a Native American nation sued the FAA in Federal District Court claiming that its approval of Starship/Super Heavy from SpaceX’s Starbase facility violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Center for Biological Diversity, American Bird Conservancy, Surfrider Foundation, Save RGV, and the Carizzo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas, Inc.

The FAA approved the launch site “without complying with bedrock federal environmental law, without fully analyzing the significant environmental and community impacts of the SpaceX launch program — including destruction of some of the most vital migratory bird habitat in North America — and without requiring mitigation sufficient to offset those impacts,” the lawsuit claimed.

Starbase is located close to a national wildlife refuge, state wildlife management area, state coastal preserve, and two state parks. The area is home to endangered and protected species.

“SpaceX denies the allegation…that ‘species [] are imperiled by SpaceX activities,'” the company said in its response.

The lawsuit also said the Carizzo/Comecrudo Nation considers the Boca Chica area where the spaceport is located to be “vital and sacred” ancestral lands. The tribe regularly holds ceremonies at Boca Chica Beach where members leave offerings for ancestors, the suit said.

Debris deposited after the first Starship/Super Heavy launch
Debris lies in wetlands that surround Starbase after the maiden launch of SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy rocket. (Credit: Coastal Bays Bends and Estuaries)

The groups sued the FAA in the wake of SpaceX’s first Starship/Super Heavy launch from Starbase on April 20. The launch severely damaged the pad, and spread debris over a wide area. The rocket blew up over the Gulf of Mexico less than four minutes after liftoff when it began to tumble out of control.

SpaceX is joining the lawsuit on the side of the FAA as owner of the Starbase launch site in Boca Chica, Texas.

FAA originally approved Starbase for up to 12 launches of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in 2014. The approval was done after the completion of an environmental impact statement (EIS) that evaluated the impact of the launches on the surrounding area. The agency issued a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) in approving the launches.

SpaceX later abandoned plans to launch Falcon 9 from the site in favor of the much larger and more powerful Starship/Super Heavy booster. A FAA official initially said the agency would require a second EIS. FAA subsequently announced that a less rigorous and time consuming environmental assessment (EA) would be conducted.

Starship first launch attempt on April 17, 2023
Starship first launch attempt on April 17, 2023

Last year, the FAA issued a second FONSI that approved Starship/Super Heavy launches from the Starbase facility. The FONSI included more than 70 mitigations designed to protect the sensitive near the Gulf Coast launch site.

The lawsuit claimed the FAA’s decision not to conduct a second EIS violated environmental law. It wants the approval negated until a full EIS is completed, a process that could take years. The lawsuit criticized the mitigations as ineffective, and claimed FAA had failed to explain how they would reduce the impact of launches to insignificant levels.

“Many of the proposed mitigation measures are inadequate to prevent the SpaceX launch program from causing significant environmental harm,” the lawsuit said. “For example, FAA failed to ensure that the environment impacts of ‘anomalies’ would be sufficiently mitigated, requiring only after-the-fact consultation with experiment agencies, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, about recovering exploded rocket fragments from adjacent habitat areas.”

The FAA failed to analyze other options, “including a less-intensive use of the Boca Chica site (i.e., fewer launches per year), or the use of other sites for the proposed launches, such as Kennedy Space Center, which SpaceX itself has suggested as an alternative,” the lawsuit claimed.

“SpaceX denies that it suggested Kennedy Space Center as a site alternative,” the company said.

SpaceX is building a launch complex for Starship/Super Heavy at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the east coast of Florida.

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