A group of environmental and cultural heritage nonprofits have filed a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), claiming that the agency violated the National Environment Policy Act by allowing SpaceX to launch the largest rocket ever built without conducting a comprehensive environmental review. The lawsuit, filed in a district court in Washington, D.C., alleges that SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy test flight on April 20 caused significant environmental damage. The explosion hurled chunks of concrete and metal sheets thousands of feet away into sensitive habitat, spread particulate matter including pulverized concrete for miles, and sparked a 3.5-acre fire on state park lands near the launch site.
The plaintiffs, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the American Bird Conservancy, SurfRider Foundation, Save Rio Grande Valley, and the Carrizo-Comecrudo Nation of Texas, argue that the FAA should have conducted an in-depth environmental impact statement (EIS) before allowing SpaceX to move ahead with its Starship Super Heavy plans in Boca Chica, Texas. The groups claim that the agency waived the need for more thorough analysis based on proposed “environmental mitigations,” which were woefully insufficient to offset environmental damages from launch events, construction, and increased traffic in the area. The lawsuit notes that the FAA’s own chief of staff for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation in June 2020 said the agency was planning an EIS but later settled on using “a considerably less thorough analysis” to enable SpaceX to launch sooner.
The National Wildlife Refuge lands and beaches of Boca Chica, which are near the SpaceX Starbase facility, provide essential habitat for endangered species, including the piping plover, the red knot, jaguarundi, northern aplomado falcon, and sea turtles, including the Kemp’s Ridley. The Boca Chica land and its wildlife, namely ocelots, are also sacred to the Carrizo-Comecrudo tribe of Texas. The groups challenging the FAA are particularly concerned about the public’s access to the state parks, beaches, and the National Wildlife Refuge area near Starbase.
As of last Wednesday, researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not found any carcasses of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act on the land that they own or manage in the area. However, the researchers were not able to access the site for two days after the launch, leaving open the possibility that carcasses could have been eaten by predators, washed away, or even removed from the site. Despite the particulate matter, heavier debris, and fire, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter Spaces that there has not been any meaningful damage to the environment that they’re aware of. Federal and state agencies and other environmental researchers are still evaluating the impact of the launch on the people, habitat, and wildlife independently from SpaceX.
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