SpaceX’s failed launch leads to FAA lawsuit for environmental concerns

On May 1st, several conservation groups filed to sue the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over its approval of Elon Musk’s SpaceX to launch the largest rocket ever built from its Boca Chica facility next to a national wildlife refuge in South Texas without an intensive environmental study.

  • The April 20 explosion of the SpaceX Starship Super Heavy caused a lot of environmental damage.
  • 5 environmental conservation groups have filed a lawsuit against FAA.
  • The suit claims the FAA did not conduct a thorough environmental impact analysis.
  • The plaintiffs seek the agency to disallow SpaceX from any future testing at their Boca Chica site until a thorough EIS is conducted.

The test flight of SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy on April 20th blew up the company’s launchpad at Boca Chica, Texas, sending chunks of concrete and metal several miles away, spreading pulverized concrete into the air, and starting a 3.5-acre fire near the launch site.

The lawsuit was filed in a district court in Washington, D.C., by 5 parties: The Center for Biological Diversity, the American Bird Conservancy, SurfRider Foundation, Save Rio Grande Valley, and a cultural-heritage organization, the Carrizo-Comecrudo Nation of Texas. They argue the agency should have conducted an in-depth environmental impact statement before approval of the launch. 

SpaceX facility at Boca Chica, Texas (Source: i.ytimg.com)

The agency is alleged to have forgone the need for thorough analysis based on proposed “environmental mitigations.” However, the mitigations the FAA actually required of SpaceX were severely insufficient to offset environmental damages from launches, construction, and increased traffic in the area, as well as the destruction of the launch pad and mid-air explosion two weeks ago.

The attorneys on the plaintiff’s side note the FAA’s plan for Environmental Impact Statement as stated by their own chief of staff for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation in June 2020. The attorneys later claim that based on SpaceX’s preference, the federal agency conducted “a considerably less thorough analysis” allowing SpaceX to launch sooner.

The impact of the explosion on civilians and nature is still under evaluation by government agencies and private researchers. Despite the particulate matter, heavier debris, and fire, CEO Elon Musk on Twitter claims, “To the best of our knowledge there has not been any meaningful damage to the environment that we’re aware of.”

The National Wildlife Refuge lands and beaches of Boca Chica near the SpaceX facility provide essential habitat to several endangered species including the piping plover, the red knot, the jaguarundi, the northern aplomado falcon, and sea turtles including the Kemp’s Ridley which is the most endangered sea turtle in the world.

As of last Wednesday, researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to find any dead endangered animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. However, the researchers were not permitted to enter the site for two days after the accident, leaving open the possibility of foul play.

The plaintiffs demand the FAA revoke SpaceX’s launch licenses until a thorough and comprehensive Environmental Impact Analysis is conducted

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