By Gaige Davila
Though increasing its test activity, SpaceX has no ground control.
Federal agencies are saying SpaceX’s plans to expand its Boca Chica facility will “adversely affect” the surrounding environment, documents show.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), in response to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit expansion request from SpaceX, declare that the company’s expansion plans would harm the protected wildlife reserves that surround the site.
“The EPA is of the opinion that this project may have substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on the (aquatic resources of national importance),” Maria L. Martinez, Chief of the EPA’s Permitting and Water Quality Branch, wrote in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
SpaceX wants to expand its Boca Chica facility by 17.16 acres, according to the USACE’s public notice, where they’re adding “test, orbital and landing pads, integration towers, associated infrastructure, stormwater management features and vehicle parking.”
Some of the affected flora and fauna include ocelots, jaguarundis, nesting sea turtles, northern aplomado falcons, the wind-tidal flats that are home to migrating shorebirds and the Laguna Madre wetland complex.
“The wind-tidal flats and wetlands in Boca Chica Bay are part of the binational Laguna Madre ecosystem critical to the survival of many species of shorebirds and waterfowl,” Martinez wrote. “Due to their importance, losses to these habitat types should be avoided or greatly minimized.”
Both the EPA and the FWS mention SpaceX not providing a mitigation plan, or how they will prevent or offset any environmental damage, in their permit extension request. SpaceX, in their permit expansion request, said they would provide a “comprehensive, multifaceted” mitigation plan, but did not say when.
Local activists like Save RGV say that permit expansion request is SpaceX’s attempt to segment a larger expansion project to avoid another environmental impact statement (EIS) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
In Martinez’s letter on SpaceX’s expansion, the EPA says the site’s current EIS, which was issued in 2014, “may not be consistent with the scope of current activities” at Boca Chica. Martinez then recommends a “thorough scientific evaluation of direct, secondary and cumulative impacts” of SpaceX’s starship projects.
Initially, the public comment period for SpaceX’s permit expansion request ended April 5. The USACE extended the public comment period to April 20, to the relief of local activists and citizens.
The expansion request comes shortly after SpaceX CEO and Founder Elon Musk posted on his Twitter page that he wanted to create a new city from the Boca Chica facility, calling it Starbase. SpaceX plans to incorporate neighboring Boca Chica Village, an unincorporated Cameron County community with, now, few residents. SpaceX has bought out homeowners from their houses in Boca Chica Village, with an estimated 10 residents remaining.
Celia Garcia, who has lived in her home at Boca Chica Village for 30 years, is one of those remaining residents. Life has changed in the small Gulf-side hideaway, regardless if SpaceX hasn’t expanded yet.
“The traffic is horrendous,” Garcia told the PRESS in a phone call. “It’s trucks, trucks, trucks, everywhere.”
These trucks, moving supplies and people in and out of SpaceX’s facility, have created potholes all over Highway 4, the only road leading in or out of Boca Chica, and have killed several animals, Garcia said.
“It’s changed a lot, the air quality will never be the same here,” Garcia said, mentioning fumes and exhaust from SpaceX’s tests and launches. “It’s going to be affecting the environment, and a lot of people aren’t going to know about it until they start dying of cancer or something.”
Garcia said the launches, particularly the debris from the rockets after they exploded, are polluting the south bay of Boca Chica, which does not churn as regularly as the beach’s waters do.
“It’s like a resaca, it does not have moving water, so the debris stays in their contaminating the water, and the fish, whatever’s in there,” she said.
Garcia has seen SpaceX turn the site from a launch pad to an “experimental facility,” where Boca Chica Village has become the testing ground. The wildlife she used to see there, including several migratory birds, are gone.
“I don’t see birds, I don’t see coyotes, all I see here now are the black birds,” Garcia said. “Where are the other birds? The painted buntings, the blue buntings? All the other birds of the Valley?”
Garcia owns a second home in Boca Chica Village, too, that she would rent to supplement her social security income after retiring from the State of Michigan. That house is unusable now, Garcia said, because Cameron County will not issue a permit to restore power or provide water for the home. SpaceX offered to buy the home, with Garcia accepting the offer and willing to sell. But SpaceX wanted her main home, too, and she declined, because the offer was not enough to purchase another property in Port Isabel. Garcia says SpaceX refused to buy her second home once she made clear she was not selling her main home.
“SpaceX has cut off part of my retirement income and I find myself struggling financially while Elon, the richest man in the world, keeps adding to his billions of dollars,” she said.
Garcia’s property taxes have increased from $580 to $2,580 in the last year. Even trying to drive home can be an issue, Garcia said, because Cameron County routinely closes Highway 4 during SpaceX’s tests and launches.
“We’re at the mercy of the county right now,” Garcia said.
Until recently, SpaceX employees were indifferent to Boca Chica Village residents, ignoring their greetings, questions and livelihoods entirely, Garcia said, acting as if they were “working for God or something.”
This has changed, she said, thanks to a handful of SpaceX employees that manage Boca Chica Village residents’ concerns. Being in her seventies and with asthma, Garcia told SpaceX she did not want to travel to the Island, where the rest of the residents are taken during a launch, because she was concerned about contracting COVID-19. Garcia now goes to an Airstream trailer five miles away, specifically placed for her by SpaceX, during rocket launches.
Thanks to these employees, and Garcia’s memories of traveling to Boca Chica Beach while growing up in Brownsville, she’s staying, Starbase or not.
“I’m going to stay here as long as they don’t offer me enough money to move.”
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