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Cameron County gives roads, official support to SpaceX as opposition to company grows

SpaceX's Elon Musk gives an update on the company's Mars rocket Starship in Boca Chica
Callaghan O'Hare/REUTERS
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A prototype of SpaceX's Starship spacecraft is seen before in Boca Chica, Texas U.S. September 28, 2019. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Cameron County is now fully supporting SpaceX’s plans to launch the largest rocket ever made from its Boca Chica Beach facility.

The Cameron County Commissioners Court unanimously voted to support SpaceX’s latest rocket project on Tuesday, after hours in executive session.

SpaceX is planning to launch a prototype of its Starship rocket, a craft built for Mars exploration, combined with a 33-rocket booster called SuperHeavy. The company developed the project for the last few years, along with receiving operating permits from state and federal agencies.

The latest regulatory hurdle was from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In June, after half a year of delays, the FAA granted environmental clearance to SpaceX if they could resolve more than 75 issues with their launch and expansion plans.

Several residents spoke out against the resolution on Tuesday. They said Cameron County should not support a company that has adversely impacted the environment’s fauna and limits access to Boca Chica Beach. Moreover, residents complained that Cameron County already has supported SpaceX through other means.

“This commission has already given this company so many breaks, financially and otherwise, and seems to be in the business of making it easier and easier for this company to erase our longstanding heritage in order to make a couple of bucks,” said Emma Guevara, an organizer with the South Texas Environmental Justice Network and lifelong Brownsville resident.

Guevara, an organizer for the South Texas Environmental Justice Network, handed packets with more than 200 public comments opposing SpaceX to the commissioners. She said the commissioners’ court meetings were inaccessible for county residents who were working-class, students or disabled.

The commissioners also agreed to abandon public roads inside of Boca Chica Village, an unincorporated community of homes mostly owned by SpaceX employees. The last time Cameron County had done any maintenance on the roads was more than ten years ago, according to the county engineer. As of late, SpaceX has maintained, used and sometimes renamed the roads that have been public right-of-ways since before the company’s ambitions.

With most of the homes inside Boca Chica Village now owned by SpaceX or its employees, the Cameron County commissioners said abandoning the roads would not prevent owners from accessing their homes or land.

The land SpaceX’s site is on has a history long before it was owned by Cameron County and maintained by state and federal wildlife agencies, however. The lands are sacred sites of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, the tribe states, and SpaceX has developed over them.

One resident, Christopher Basaldú, a Native American studies scholar, spoke on SpaceX and Cameron County not including the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas into discussions about the site, its Starship launch or expansion plans. He said SpaceX isn’t benefitting all of Brownsville’s residents.

“You think of it as economic development, but it's economic development for you, and for rich people in Brownsville, it’s not economic development for the vast majority of people in Cameron County who are not very well off economically,” said Basaldu, who is also a member of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas.

Cameron County’s resolution notes several figures of apparent economic impact that SpaceX has had on Cameron County. This includes SpaceX creating more than 7,000 jobs and more than $1 billion in revenue across the Rio Grande Valley, according to the document.

Cameron County’s public information office said these figures were provided by SpaceX to the county. TPR has requested records showing the source of the figures and the economic impact study mentioned in the document.

SpaceX is still some time away from launching Starship and SuperHeavy. The latter booster exploded during a pressure test in mid-July, and SpaceX has yet to receive a launch license from the FAA. The explosion’s shockwave was felt through Port Isabel and South Padre Island.

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Gaige Davila is a reporter for Texas Public Radio's Border and Immigration Desk, working from his hometown, Port Isabel, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley.