Environmental Groups Sue FAA For Allowing SpaceX Starship Launches at Boca Chica

Environmental Groups Sue FAA For Allowing SpaceX Starship Launches at Boca Chica

Several environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the FAA today because it did not adequately protect the area around SpaceX’s Starbase in Boca Chica, TX. The action comes less than two weeks after SpaceX conducted the first launch of Starship/Super Heavy, the most powerful rocket ever built, sending a cloud of dust and debris into the air. Some fell on a nearby town. The rocket exploded over the Gulf of Mexico minutes later. They want the FAA’s approval of SpaceX’s launch operations at Boca Chica rescinded.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the American Bird Conservancy, Surfrider Foundation, Save RGV, and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas, Inc. filed suit in federal court in Washington, DC, the location of FAA’s headquarters.

They argue that the FAA’s environmental review was inadequate, authorizing 20 Starship/Super Heavy launches per year over the next 5 years “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 FAA issued a mitigated Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact/Record of Decision or FONSI/ROD on June 13, 2022. The mitigated FONSI/ROD gave SpaceX a qualified environmental thumbs up to launch from Boca Chica, near Brownsville, TX, that required 75 actions from SpaceX.

That was followed by a Written Re-Evaluation for SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy Reentry on April 14, 2023, the same day FAA gave SpaceX the launch license.

Space X attempted the first launch of the 120-meter (394-foot) tall rocket, 9 meters (29.5 feet) in diameter, filled with 10 million pounds of liquid methane and liquid oxygen, three days later on April 17, but it scrubbed.

On April 20, it got off the launch pad, but the 16 million pounds of thrust generated by the 33 Raptor engines destroyed the concrete under the launch pad, sending chunks flying and a cloud of pulverized cement and dirt into the air.

Much of the debris cloud landed in nearby Port Isabel where residents said it “landed on just about everything.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documented “numerous large concrete chunks, stainless steel sheets, metal and other objects hurled thousands of feet away along with a plume cloud of pulverized concrete that deposited material up to 6.5 miles northwest of the pad site.”  A “3.5 acre fire started south of the pad site” as well, but “no dead birds or wildlife have been found” on land owned by the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge or managed lands.

The lawsuit contends the FAA violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) in several ways, including not requiring an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), but instead relying on a SpaceX-provided programmatic environmental assessment that is a “considerably less thorough analysis intended only to determine whether an EIS is required.”

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, also owns Twitter.  In a Twitter audio discussion on Saturday available only to those who pay him to subscribe to Twitter, Musk indicated the destruction of the concrete under the launch pad was unexpected. It created a “rock tornado” and “we don’t want to do that again” according to the New York Times.

Musk is optimistic about launching again soon, as is NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. NASA contracted with SpaceX to provide the Human Landing System to take astronauts from lunar orbit down to and back from the lunar surface on the Artemis III mission in 2025. Starship is that vehicle.

The FAA regulates commercial space launches and reentries and will determine when SpaceX can launch Starship/Super Heavy again. The FAA told SpacePolicyOnline.com today that it is overseeing the Space-X led investigation into what happened on April 20 and return-to-flight will be “based on the FAA determining that any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety.”

As for the lawsuit, “The FAA does not comment on ongoing litigation matters.”

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