FAA seeks public input on planned expansion of SpaceX’s South Texas launch site

Border Report Tour

Environmentalists argue it's too late in environmental assessment process to be seeking opinions

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The Federal Aviation Administration is asking the public to weigh in on SpaceX’s request to expand its launch and testing facility in South Texas near Boca Chica Beach, but some environmentalists worry the request is coming too late in the agency’s ongoing environmental assessment process.

The FAA in June told Border Report that it had launched an environmental assessment into the commercial space company’s request to expand to test and launch its Super Heavy rockets, such as its developing Starship spacecraft, which the company hopes one day to be able to fly humans to Mars. This came after many area environmentalists and residents had expressed concern following several failed launch attempts and fiery explosions at the facility in 2020.

A fire and explosion occurred at SpaceX’s South Texas launch facility near Boca Chica Beach on May 29, 2020, after a failed static fire engine test. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

In December, a Starship SN8 prototype exploded during a landing at the facility after launching and conducting its first high-altitude test flight over South Texas of the spacecraft. In May, Border Report caught on camera a giant fireball at the facility as an SN8 prototype exploded during a static engine test.

SpaceX has for over a year been conducting tests on these massive rockets. But the FAA, which oversees all space launches and test permitting, last year decided not to conduct an extensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) inquiry. Instead, the agency decided to conduct an environmental assessment to determine whether these expanded tests and launch activities are harmful to area wildlife, the environment and/or the public living nearby.

A Starship prototype is seen on Nov. 30, 2020, on the launch pad at SpaceX’s South Texas facility near Boca Chica Beach. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Environmental safeguards are required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). And area environmentalists told Border Report they had hoped the FAA would conduct an extensive EIS, which would have required public hearings.

In announcing recently that it is opening the process up to public comments via a “public scoping period,” the federal agency is allowing the public to comment on issues that it feels should be considered during the environmental review, the agency said.

“The scoping period is one part of the regular environmental review process and will help the FAA determine the scope of issues for analysis in the draft Environmental Analysis for the proposed project. The FAA requests public comments on potential alternatives and impacts, and identification of any relevant information, studies, or analyses of any kind concerning impacts affecting the quality of the human environment,” an FAA spokesperson wrote in an email to Border Report on Wednesday.

The deadline to submit comments for the scoping period is Jan. 21. Comments should be emailed to spacexbocachica@icf.com. More information can be found at the FAA website.

Jim Chapman, of Weslaco, Texas, is president of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

But Jim Chapman, who is the president of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor and has been involved in recent talks and discussions with the FAA and SpaceX, told Border Report that opening this up to public comments so many months into the process is much too late, and he believes it should have been done at the beginning to set the scope of what the FAA should study.

“Generally, the scoping process initiates the environmental review it allows the public and agency in charge of the environmental assessment to determine what they should consider in their environmental review. It’s usually the initial step, but in this case, the FAA has been working on its environmental assessment since June,” Chapman said Wednesday.

“They are far down the track so it seems fairly odd that they’re doing this now,” Chapman said. “My guess is they’re doing this to satisfy the public input requirement but it really won’t help anything.”

Chapman said he was told in a Nov. 9 meeting with SpaceX and FAA officials that they expect a report on the environmental assessment to be released by early 2021. However, the FAA wrote in an email Wednesday to Border Report that the process is just “beginning.”

“The FAA is in the beginning stages of conducting the environmental review of the SpaceX proposal and developing a public outreach plan. The FAA intends to provide scoping information for the project soon. SpaceX is working with the FAA to prepare a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) which will be subject to the FAA’s evaluation and approval,” the spokesman wrote.

Findings from the environmental assessment “will allow the FAA to determine the appropriate course of action,” the official wrote. This could include:

  • Launching an EIS if the environmental impacts are found to be significant
  • Issuing a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI)
  • Or issuing a “Mitigated FONSI” providing for mitigation measures to address the proposed action’s environmental impacts.

The FAA may make its determination during the EA process or after SpaceX presents a draft environmental assessment for FAA approval.

Meanwhile, SpaceX tests continue in South Texas.

On Wednesday, Cameron County officials closed State Highway 4, also called Boca Chica Boulevard, due to SpaceX planned testing. Temporary closures also were scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

A sign at Boca Chica Beach, Texas, indicates sea turtles nest in the area. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Chapman says that SpaceX has far exceeded the 180 hours allotted for road and beach closures when the FAA in 2014 approved the launch facility, which had originally been built for use by much smaller low orbital spacecraft.

He has reached out to several nonprofits to ask them to weigh in and send comments to the FAA during this process.

“We’re hoping lots of groups will weigh in on that because the impacts down there is just getting greater and greater,” Chapman said.

He particularly worries about the impact on nesting sea turtles, migratory birds, mangroves and oyster beds that could be affected by the loud concussive sounds, smoke, and vibrations associated with space engine tests and launches.

Boca Chica Beach is a sea turtle nesting area where the turtles lay eggs in the sand dunes from April through September and then the hatchings make their way into the Gulf waters.

A spokeswoman for Sea Turtle Inc., a nonprofit that rescues and protects local Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles, told Border Report they are working with SpaceX officials who call the organization prior to test launches to let them know so they can patrol for nesting sea turtles and relocate them. She said several injured and deceased turtles also have been called in by SpaceX employees, and SpaceX employees have been trained in what to do if they encounter turtles.

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