FAA sues over SpaceX Starship launch after April explosion

Environmental and heritage groups sued the Federal Aviation Administration on Monday, alleging the agency violated the National Environment Policy Act when it allowed SpaceX to launch the largest rocket ever built from its Boca Chica, Texas facility without a full environmental assessment launch court filings obtained from CNBC.

SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy test flight on April 20 blew up the company’s launch pad, hurling chunks of concrete and sheet metal thousands of feet away into sensitive habitats, dispersing particles including powdered concrete miles and igniting a 3.5-acre fire at state parks near the launch site.

The lawsuit against the FAA was filed in a district court in Washington, DC by five plaintiffs: the Center for Biological Diversity, the American Bird Conservancy, the SurfRider Foundation, Save Rio Grande Valley, and a cultural heritage organization, the Carrizo-Comecrudo Nation from Texas.

The groups argue that the agency should have prepared an in-depth Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before ever allowing SpaceX to proceed with its Starship Super Heavy plans at Boca Chica.

“The FAA has not reviewed the proposed project closely and has concluded that there will be no significant adverse impacts as a result of alleged mitigation actions,” they wrote in the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs argue that the agency waived the need for a more thorough analysis based on the proposed “environmental safeguards”. But SpaceX’s actual reductions required by the FAA were woefully insufficient to offset environmental damage from launch events, construction and increased traffic in the area, as well as “anomalies” like the launch pad destruction and mid-air explosion in April, which it called.

In their complaint, attorneys note that in June 2020, the FAA’s chief of staff for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation said the agency was planning an EIS. Later, “based on SpaceX’s preference,” the attorneys wrote, the federal agency opted for a “significantly less thorough analysis” that allowed SpaceX to launch earlier.

Despite the particulate matter, heavier debris and fire, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter Spaces this weekend, “To the best of our knowledge, there has been no significant damage to the environment that we are aware of.”

The exact impact of the launch on people, habitat and wildlife is still being evaluated by federal and state agencies and other environmental researchers alongside and independently of SpaceX.

The lands and beaches of Boca Chica’s National Wildlife Refuge, located near the SpaceX Starbase, provide important habitat for endangered species including the plover, red knot, jaguarundi, northern aplomado hawk and sea turtles, including the Kemp’s Ridley. Kemp’s Ridley is the world’s most endangered sea turtle, and the National Wildlife Refuge contains a designated critical habitat for the plover.

The land of Boca Chica and its wildlife, namely ocelots, are also sacred to the Carrizo-Comecrudo tribe of Texas.

As of last Wednesday, researchers with the US Fish and Wildlife Service had found no carcasses of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act on land they own or manage in the area. However, researchers were unable to access the site two days after launch, leaving open the possibility that carcasses could have been eaten by predators, washed away or even removed from the site.

Access to the state parks, beaches, and National Wildlife Refuge area near Starbase by tribes, researchers, and the public is of particular concern to the groups challenging the FAA.

Plaintiff’s attorneys determined that Boca Chica Beach was closed or inaccessible for approximately 500 hours or more in 2021 based on Cameron County’s closure notices, with a “beach or access point closure occurring on over 100 separate days.” . This high rate of closures, which the FAA allowed, “impairs the ability of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas to gain access to lands and waters that are part of its ancestral heritage,” the groups argued.

The FAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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