EXCLUSIVE: FAA allows SpaceX to conduct its own environmental review of controversial South Texas facility


EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with a comment from the FAA.
McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The Federal Aviation Administration allowed SpaceX to pick the type of environmental review it wanted done on its controversial South Texas launch facility, and the aerospace company chose the quicker and easier route that requires no public hearing or comment period, the FAA told Border Report.

This is the same facility where a SpaceX rocket engine exploded on May 29 during a test, sending a fireball into the air near Boca Chica Beach on the border with Mexico.

In a letter sent to the head of a South Texas environmental nonprofit organization, an FAA official wrote that “applicants have the right to choose whether to conduct an Environmental Assessment (EA) under FAA oversight or work with the FAA to initiate the EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) process. If an applicant believes the proposed action would have no significant environmental impacts, or that they can mitigate any potential impacts, then the applicant typically chooses an EA. … SpaceX has begun an EA for the action of issuing experimental permits or launch licenses to SpaceX for Starship/Super Heavy launch operations at the Texas Launch Site.”

The letter also said that the agency has reached out to three other federal agencies to help monitor the situation.

Trucks are seen in the parking lot of the SpaceX Texas Launch Facility, which is being expanded on five acres near Boca Chica Beach, Texas. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The letter by Howard Searight, deputy manager for the Licensing and Evaluation Division for Commercial Space Transportation for the FAA, was sent to Jim Chapman, president of the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor. Chapman was among seven environmental group leaders who earlier this month called on the FAA to launch a full-scale EIS of the SpaceX launch facility, which borders several wildlife preserve areas and is located just feet from where endangered sea turtles nest.

On Friday evening, the FAA sent the letter to Border Report, which has repeatedly asked for clarification and explanation on the type of environmental review currently being done on the South Texas facility. The agency also released a statement to Border Report late Monday defending its regulation of the space industry and of SpaceX.

But a couple environmental groups tell Border Report that the letter the FAA sent is full of policy errors.

Jim Chapman is president of the nonprofit group Friends of the Wildlife Corridor. He is seen near Sanata Ana Wildlife Refuge in South Texas on June 1, 2020. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Chapman said the agency is violating federal laws by allowing the applicant to pick its own review.

“The FAA letter is way off-base. It is the FAA, not the applicant, who decides whether a proposed project requires an EA or EIS,” Chapman said. “If it was the applicant who decided then nobody would ever chose to do an EIS because that’s a longer process and more expensive to do.”

Federal regulations from the FAA stipulate rules that must be followed under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA): “Chapter 3: Levels of National Environmental Policy Act Review 3-1. Three Levels of National Environmental Policy Act Review. Once the FAA determines that NEPA applies to a proposed action, it needs to decide on the appropriate level of review. The three levels of NEPA review are Categorical Exclusion (CATEX), Environmental Assessment (EA), and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS),” according to the FAA’s 2015 orders, which states “Under NEPA, the FAA must prepare an EIS for actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.”

Border Report last month broke the story that the FAA had ordered an environmental review of the SpaceX facility because the company is now preparing a different space vehicle — the massive, 400-foot-tall Starship — which it wants to one day launch humans to Mars from South Texas. When the company initially requested license and permitting for the facility in 2014, it said it would launch a smaller spaceship, the Falcon Heavy, and received FAA approval based on that information. At the time, SpaceX was granted permission to launch no more than 12 times per year from this site.

But local residents say when the company changed plans, it became a multi-testing facility unlike it was initially billed to the South Texas community. Environmental groups are concerned about the harmful effects the testing of Starship, which is being designed to haul over 100 tons of payload, poses to neighbors and wildlife tracts. And it is even suspected that the heat from the test launches could affect the sex of the eggs the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles lay on the sand dunes of Boca Chica Beach, about a half-mile from the launch facility.

“It’s real clear from the get-go that there will be very significant impacts and given that, they should go straight to the EIS and let the public in,” Chapman said. “SpaceX now wants to more than triple the closure of Boca Chica Beach and Highway 4 and you don’t think the public should get to weigh in on that decision? Boy I sure do. … There’s all kinds of impact that in my mind scream out that it should be investigated.”

SpaceX now wants to more than triple the closure of Boca Chica Beach and Highway 4 and you don’t think the public should get to weigh in on that decision? Boy I sure do.”

Jim Chapman, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor

Border Report has reached out to SpaceX officials for comment and will update this story if information is received.

A May 29 fiery explosion is seen from a mile away caught on camera by Border Report from the SpaceX Texas Launch Facility near Boca Chica Beach, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/BorderReport)

Concerns about environmental impacts became more pronounced after Border Report on May 29 captured the explosion of a test of a raptor rocket engine at the South Texas facility.

Watch the explosion on this exclusive Border Report video.

After it was learned that an environmental review was being done, Chapman and others sent the FAA a letter demanding an EIS. Among the groups was the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, whose Texas representative, Paul Sanchez-Navarro, told Border Report on Monday that the FAA should not allow the applicant to select what type of review it wants done.

“Jim (Chapman) is correct, it is not a question of choice, the business must follow federal regulations. From what I understand, a Supplemental or new EIS should be done,” Sanchez-Navarro said. “There is no room for arbitrary choices.”

“In the meantime, the FAA should make sure that SpaceX complies with the mitigation work outlined in the permit and any new work to expand the project beyond the original EIS should be put on hold until a new EIS is approved,” he said.

There is no room for arbitrary choices.”

Paul Sanchez-Navarro of Defenders of Wildlife

In the letter, the FAA did stipulate that the agency still might conduct an EIS, writing: “All applicants run the potential risk that further review may uncover significant impacts that cannot be mitigated. In those cases, the FAA must conduct an EIS.”

The FAA said it “has invited the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Parks, Service, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to participate as cooperating agencies.” and to “actively participate” in project meetings and provide input on “potential impacts.”

But Chapman claims that because the FAA promotes space travel, regulating it, in this case, shows a conflict of interest.

“The FAA regulates and promotes the U.S. space program so it appears they don’t want to put any significant hurdles at SpaceX,” Chapman said. And current laws, it seems, do not allow for another agency to step in and take over, he said.

FAA officials responded to the charges Monday telling Border Report: “The Federal Aviation Administration’s continuing mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world. The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation manages licensing and regulatory work as well as encourage, facilitate, and promote commercial space launches and reentries by the private sector; and facilitate the strengthening and expansion of the United States space transportation infrastructure. The agency’s uncompromising focus is on public safety.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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