Federal agency failed to weigh possible environmental impacts of SpaceX rocket launch, lawsuit claims

Large pieces of concrete are shown near SpaceXs launch pad after its next-generation Starship and super-heavy rocket launched, causing damage at the companys Boca Chica facility near Brownsville on April 22, 2023. (Reuters/Steve Nesius, Reuters/Steve Nesius)

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Environmental groups and a Texas tribe are suing the Federal Aviation Administration over its handling of SpaceX’s plans for its April 20 rocket test launch at Boca Chica in Cameron County. The groups claim the FAA failed to conduct an environmental review of the launch, which ended with the rocket exploding after takeoff and debris raining onto sensitive habitat nearby.

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SpaceX’s 400-foot tall Starship spun in circles minutes into the flight, then self-destructed over the Gulf of Mexico after reaching a height of 24 miles. The launch sent debris, including chunks of concrete, into sensitive animal habitats nearby.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that a debris cloud containing pulverized concrete spread as far as 6.5 miles north of the launch pad.

The lawsuit was filed in Washington, D.C., on Monday by five plaintiffs, including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas. The groups argue that the FAA, which authorizes rocket launches, should have conducted an in-depth environmental impact assessment before allowing SpaceX to proceed with its plans and claim the agency delegated that task to SpaceX.

They are asking the court to suspend SpaceX’s five-year license, granted by the FAA.

“We want to see the FAA cancel the permits until they’ve figured out how they can either minimize or at least mitigate the environmental damage the rockets are doing,” said Michael Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy.

The goal of the lawsuit is to protect wildlife and front-line communities, Parr said. Shorebirds such as piping plovers that live near the SpaceX facility are sensitive to the heat, noise and smoke from the rocket launches, he said.

The Boca Chica area is biologically diverse, the groups state in the lawsuit, and an essential habitat to many species, including federally protected wildlife such as migratory birds.

“It’s vital that we protect life on Earth even as we look to the stars in this modern era of space flight,” Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a written statement. “Federal officials should defend vulnerable wildlife and frontline communities, not give a pass to corporate interests that want to use treasured coastal landscapes as a dumping ground for space waste.”

In the lawsuit, the groups call SpaceX’s self-review a “considerably less thorough analysis intended only to determine whether an environmental impact statement is required” for the starship launch. According to the lawsuit, SpaceX concluded that there were no potential environmental impacts and the FAA did no additional environmental review.

FAA spokesperson Donnell Evans said the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation. The agency has launched an investigation into April’s launch and ordered SpaceX to halt launches until it’s certain that public safety will not be at risk.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Juan Mancias, chair of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, said the FAA also failed to consider that the land SpaceX chose for its launch site is sacred to his tribe, which he calls “the original people” of that land. SpaceX’s facility has made it harder for the tribe to access the beach, hold traditional ceremonies and leave offerings to their ancestors, according to the lawsuit.

“We’re humans. We have a human right to take care of our lands and our villages and all they’re doing is digging up our bones and digging up our ceremonial sites,” Mancias said.

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