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FAA allowed SpaceX to assess its own environmental impact during launch license process, lawsuit says

SpaceX's Starship, the largest rocket ever built, atop the launch pad at their Boca Chica Beach facility seen from Isla Blanca Park at South Padre on April 17, 2023. Thousands gathered at Isla Blanca Park anticipating the launch, but SpaceX scrubbed it shortly before takeoff and expect to re-attempt in the coming days.
Michael Gonzalez
/
TPR
SpaceX's Starship, the largest rocket ever built, atop the launch pad at their Boca Chica Beach facility seen from Isla Blanca Park at South Padre on April 17, 2023. Thousands gathered at Isla Blanca Park anticipating the launch, but SpaceX scrubbed it shortly before takeoff and expect to re-attempt in the coming days.

A new lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) asked for the agency to reconsider the launch license it issued to SpaceX almost three weeks ago.

Five groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, the American Bird Conservancy, the Surfrider Foundation, Save RGV and the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas — were part of the lawsuit filed Monday.

The suit wants the FAA to issue a more thorough environmental analysis of SpaceX’s Starship rocket launches. The legal action came more than a week after SpaceX launched a Starship prototype — the largest and more powerful rocket ever created — from its facility in South Texas.

The launch spread debris for nearly a mile in all directions on Boca Chica Beach, along with sending a plume of sand, soil and pulverized concrete into Port Isabel, about five miles away.

FAA’s launch license allows SpaceX to launch 20 Starship prototypes from the Boca Chica facility per year for the next five years. The group’s attorneys alleged that the 75 mitigation efforts the FAA requiring from SpaceX are not enough to prevent harm to the surrounding wildlife or environment.

The launch’s debris and environmental damage that occurred was not the focus of the lawsuit but it helped facilitate the lawsuit’s point, attorneys said.

“The damage that occurred from this launch simply corroborates our position,” said Jared Morgalis, senior attorney for the Center of Biological Diversity. “It supports the contention that they needed to do more to study the impacts of these launches to mitigate the impacts of these launches.”

The lawsuit mentioned several issues that local, state and national organizers have called attention to since SpaceX’s groundbreaking in 2014, including how often Boca Chica Beach is closed and its place on the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe’s sacred lands.

“Boca Chica is central to our creation story,” Juan Mancias, tribal chair of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas, said in a statement. “But we have been cut off from the land our ancestors lived on for thousands of years due to SpaceX, which is using our ancestral lands as a sacrifice zone for its rockets.”

Margolis believed SpaceX pressured the FAA into letting the company issue the less intensive Environmental Assessment over the more thorough Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which would take years to complete.

The lawsuit said that an EIS was planned for SpaceX’s Starship program at Boca Chica, based on an email from the FAA’s “Chief of Staff for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation,” but the decision was ultimately “deferred to SpaceX.” The agency then went on to complete an Environmental Assessment of its own project under the supervision of the FAA.

“We're talking about a giant corporation with very deep pockets — a lot of political influence,” Margolis said. “And they pushed very hard to move this forward as quickly as possible. And the FAA, unfortunately, sees its job as supporting SpaceX rather than protecting communities and wildlife from the clear harm that occurred from this launch, but also several other previous launches.”

A spokesperson for the FAA declined to say when the agency will respond to the lawsuit.

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