By Gaige Davila
The City of Port Isabel is now weighing its options in responding to a Federal Aviation Administration analysis of SpaceX’s orbital launch.
The FAA released its highly anticipated draft environmental review of SpaceX’s planned orbital launches two weeks ago, saying the launches would have little impact on Boca Chica and the surrounding environment.
The public now has 30 days to comment on this analysis.
Jared Hockema, Port Isabel’s city manager, says the city will likely submit a comment on the analysis or request a full environmental impact statement. Right now, the city’s attention is on SpaceX’s proposed mitigation efforts, meeting on Tuesday in executive session during a commissioners’ meeting to discuss the analysis.
SpaceX plans to launch its flagship rocket, Starship, attached to a 43-engine booster called Super Heavy, from the Boca Chica site. If it launches, it will be the largest rocket in spaceflight history, even larger than NASA’s Saturn V rocket, which launched America’s first space station.
The 143-page document details the available SpaceX’s orbital launch plans, from the rocket to its expansion into the neighboring state-protected wetlands. SpaceX is planning to launch both people and cargo through its Super Heavy boosters attached to its Starship, with 30 suborbital launches and 5 orbital launches a year.
Throughout the document, the FAA says they have no metric to analyze commercial space operations of SpaceX’s caliber, referring back to its 2014 environmental impact statement (EIS) for much of the analysis. Without detailed plans from SpaceX, the FAA stated they could not make an accurate analysis of the impacts, comparing many facets of the analysis to the 2014 EIS.
SpaceX’s orbital launch programs fall “outside of the scope” of the 2014 EIS, a press release announcing the draft environmental review said, necessitating the review as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. When the 2014 EIS was first completed, SpaceX planned only 12 launches a year.
Construction, tank tests, static fire tests and launches will have no significant impact to air quality or wildlife, according to the FAA. The agency is instructing SpaceX to spray water to reduce dust and other particulate matter and to minimize engine idling at the site. Noise levels, whether from launches or static fire tests, would have no significant impact to Laguna Madre area communities, the FAA says, but acknowledges they will be able to hear them. If there are any accidents, the FAA says, SpaceX has a plan for them.
The FAA’s analysis is being contested by local environmental justice groups, citing SpaceX’s previous Starship tests, almost all of which ended in explosions. On Mar. 30 this year, SpaceX launched SN11, a Starship prototype, exploding as the rocket was attempting to land. Debris was thrown into protected wetlands and as far as Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island, about five miles away. Texas Parks and Wildlife and SpaceX had to recover the debris, the latter of whom heavily disturbed the environment, the PRESS has previously reported.
The power from this orbital launch, if it explodes, could cause significant damage to the neighboring Texas Parks and Wildlife-managed lands, all of which are habitats for protected and endangered species. SpaceX’s expansion plans to handle more orbital launches would adversely affect lands, too, as documented by the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year.
“FAA’s claim that the SpaceX expansion would not significantly impact communities in the Rio Grande Valley is simply false, local residents are being affected by SpaceX’s reckless rocket explosions,” Emma Guevara, Brownsville Sierra Club organizer, told the PRESS. “ Rio Grande Valley communities depend on and value the local environment for fishing and recreation, but SpaceX has threatened its health and stability. SpaceX operations and other industrialization, including proposed LNG export terminals, impact communities in the Rio Grande Valley by making beaches inaccessible, displacing residents, and causing irreparable damage to the wildlife and the coastal environment.”
The public comment period will end on Oct. 18, following two virtual public hearings on Oct. 6 and Oct. 7. The FAA is releasing the links to attend the meeting on Oct. 4.
To submit a comment, mail them to: Stacey Zee, SpaceX PEA, c/o ICF, 9300 Lee
Highway, Fairfax, VA 22031. Emailed comments can be sent to SpaceXBocaChica@icf.com.