Environmental groups sue FAA following SpaceX rocket explosion in South Texas

Organization leaders say the company’s test flights threaten the Boca Chica area, which serves as habitat for several endangered species.

By Glorie MartinezMay 3, 2023 11:53 am,

Several environmental groups and a cultural heritage organization are suing the Federal Aviation Administration over SpaceX’s rocket test flight in South Texas in late April. The groups claim that the FAA allowed the launch without a proper environmental review, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The test flight caused a massive explosion at the SpaceX launch pad: Heavy debris was reportedly launched into the surrounding area, including a national wildlife refuge that serves as habitat for several endangered species. The full impact of the launch is still being determined, but the groups are concerned about future environmental damage, too.

Jared Margolis, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups suing the FAA, joined the Standard to share more about the lawsuit and the launch’s impact on an environmentally significant region.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity: 

Texas Standard: We understand you’re part of a coalition of environmental groups. Tell us more about the organizations involved in this suit, and what specifically you are alleging?

Jared Margolis: We have several local and national groups involved in this litigation. The Center for Biological Diversity is taking the lead role, but American Bird Conservancy, the Surfrider Foundation, a local group called Save the Rio Grande Valley, and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas are all involved. We’re concerned about the impacts to the local community and the wildlife from these launches and, as you mentioned, the explosion that occurred at the launchpad.

We’re looking to have the FAA do a more in-depth analysis of the impacts of the SpaceX program and to do more to mitigate those impacts to protect wildlife and local communities from these activities.

Why take on the FAA? Why not sue SpaceX?

What we’re trying to do is to force the Federal Aviation Administration to do their job, which is to comply with NEPA – the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA doesn’t apply to private entities; it applies to the agencies that are taking action to permit those activities. So, the agency itself has a duty to fully review the impacts of any program it permits and to make sure that there’s sufficient mitigation in place. We don’t believe they did their job here.

The FAA has to give the green light before a launch can take place there at Boca Chica, and that’s held up previous launches. Why isn’t the FAA doing this review under NEPA? Are you alleging that they are too close with SpaceX, or what exactly?

We believe that is the case. The FAA did do some level of review. They did what’s called an environmental assessment. That’s just intended to determine whether a more thorough review is required. That more thorough review, which is called an environmental impact statement, is required when there will be significant impacts from an activity.

Here, what the FAA did is said, “well, there could be some significant impacts, but we’re going to put all this mitigation in place to prevent those impacts from occurring such that the impacts will not be significant and therefore, we don’t need to do a more thorough review.” But as we saw from the launch and the explosion of the launchpad and the rocket itself, these activities can have a significant impact on the local environment.

We believe that they really needed to have done that more in-depth analysis, which would have led them to potentially understand more of what the impacts would be, and then take steps to mitigate those impacts more than they did.

Scorched bird eggs sit in a vacant nest on Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge land that caught on fire during the April 20 launch of SpaceX’s Starship rocket from their Boca Chica facility.
Michael Gonzalez / Texas Public Radio

Can you say more about the impacts? What about the wildlife and habitat in the Boca Chica area do you believe have been affected by this launch, and perhaps future launches?

It’s one of the more important ecological areas in the country. It’s where two major flyways for migratory birds come together. The launch site is surrounded by National Wildlife Refuge lands that provide critical habitat for endangered species. When you have large chunks of concrete and metal being ejected at high velocity into that area, not only do you have the potential for direct impact from actual metal and concrete hitting those species, but you have a vast array of impacts to the actual habitat that they rely on.

There was a fire that occurred from this launch. I’ve seen pictures of birds’ nests with eggs in them that were clearly burnt. You have these tidal flats that these species rely on, which are now just covered in chunks of concrete and metal. That’s going to cause significant problems for these species, as would any attempts to recover that debris. So, it’s not clear how exactly this will be addressed, but certainly there were significant impacts that need further review.

In the wake of filing this lawsuit, have you heard back from either SpaceX or the FAA? 

We’ve not heard anything. We know that the FAA is still looking into the issue. We’re hopeful that they will take the steps that we think are necessary and do the more thorough analysis. But so far, they have not stated publicly what they plan to do to address the launch. 

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