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Environment

Army Corps of Engineers withdraws SpaceX expansion application — citing insufficient, conflicting information

A prototype of SpaceX's Starship spacecraft is seen at the company's Boca Chica  launch facility on September 28, 2019 near Brownsville, Texas. The Starship is a massive space vehicle that, with reusable boosters, is meant to take people to the Moon or even Mars.
John Burnett
/
NPR
A prototype of SpaceX's Starship spacecraft is seen at the company's Boca Chica launch facility on September 28, 2019 near Brownsville, Texas. The Starship is a massive space vehicle that, with reusable boosters, is meant to take people to the Moon or even Mars.

The Army Corps of Engineers has withdrawn SpaceX’s application to expand their South Texas site, saying SpaceX has failed to provide information necessary for receiving a permit.

Officials with the Corps wrote in a March 7 letter to SpaceX that the company must provide mitigation plans for wetlands the 17-acre expansion project will potentially damage. SpaceX also needs to clarify if there is an alternative launch site for SpaceX’s orbital launch.

The Corps issues permits for wetland development after reviewing whether projects will impact endangered wildlife and natural resources. SpaceX’s site at Boca Chica Beach, outside of Brownsville, is surrounded by state and federally protected wetlands and wildlife preserves.

SpaceX is planning to launch the largest rocket ever made, called Starship, from its Boca Chica site and expand its launching capabilities. To do so, the company needs an environmental approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In a preliminary environmental review, the FAA solicited comments from the public for its final decision on whether the project is approved or needs a thorough environmental review. CEO Elon Musk told reporters in February if the FAA issued a full environmental review — which can take months to years — the company would move the launch to Cape Canaveral, Florida. Musk said the FAA has already approved launches at that site.

The Corps took issue with this, asking SpaceX to clarify whether there is an alternative launch site for Starship. In an October 2021 filing with the Corps, SpaceX “eliminated” any alternative sites for its Starship launch.

An analysis by ESG Hound, an environmental impact watchdog, suggests SpaceX removed its alternate site to prevent having to do comparative analysis between Boca Chica and Cape Canaveral.

The FAA’s decision on whether to approve SpaceX’s launch and expansion has been delayed four times since December 2021. Each time, the agency says they are still reviewing public comments they received in response to their preliminary environmental analysis.

Musk said during the February press conference that Starship, their orbital rocket project, could launch in May 2022. The FAA says they will publish their decision at the end of this month.

Read the letter here.

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