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A lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration by environmentalists over a SpaceX rocket launch license for Texas


Conservation groups sued the Federal Aviation Administration on Monday, challenging its approval of expanded rocket launches by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company next to a national wildlife refuge in south Texas without the need for a further environmental study.

The federal lawsuit comes 11 days after SpaceX successfully secured newly-granted FAA authorization to send a next-generation Starship rocket on its first test flight, a mission that ended with the vehicle exploding over the Gulf of Mexico after its launch pad was blown to rubble on liftoff.

The shattering force of the launch launched large chunks of reinforced concrete and metal fragments thousands of feet from the launch site, located near the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge near Boca Chica Park and Beach in Texas.

The explosion also ignited a 3.5-acre (1.4-hectare) fire on nearby land and sent a cloud of crushed concrete drifting 6.5 miles to the northwest, bringing rain to the surrounding tidal flats and the nearby town of Port Isabel, according to the US Fish and Fish Service. Wildlife.

SpaceX hailed the launch as a qualifying success that would yield valuable data to advance development of the spacecraft rocket and super-heavy rocket, designed as key components of NASA’s newly inaugurated Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon.

But the lawsuit filed on Monday said the April 20 incident is the latest in a series of at least nine explosive incidents in Boca Chica in recent years that disrupt a federally protected wildlife sanctuary and vital habitat for migratory birds.

Intense noise, light pollution, construction and road traffic have also degraded the area, which is home to two endangered predators — the ocelot and jaguarundi — as well as nesting sites for endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, and critical habitat for the pipe plover, a threatened beach bird, he says. plaintiffs.

The area and its wildlife are also sacred to the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation, an indigenous group of South Texas.

The disturbances show that the FAA violated federal law by allowing expanded operations at StarMask’s base in Boca Chica without authorizing a full Environmental Impact Study (EIS) normally required for major projects, the lawsuit alleges.

There was no immediate comment on the court case available from the FAA or SpaceX.

Brief environmental review?

EIS reviews typically take years, or decades, to complete. It involves an extensive analysis of the project in question and the alternatives, along with mitigation plans to reduce or offset adverse impacts. The process also includes general review, commentary, and often re-evaluation and supplemental study.

Instead, the FAA granted its authorization based on a less comprehensive environmental assessment and finding that SpaceX’s activities in Boca Chica “do not pose any significant impact” on the environment.

The lawsuit highlights a history of tension between environmentalists, who have sought to limit development in Boca Chica, and Musk, the billionaire founder and CEO of SpaceX known as a tough businessman willing to take risks.

“This case is about whether the nation’s commitment to preserving our vital habitat for wildlife and cherished coastal landscapes should be sacrificed as we reach out to explore the universe,” the suit said.

The 31-page lawsuit was filed in federal court in the District of Columbia by the Center for Biological Diversity, American Bird Conservancy, Surfrider Foundation, Save RGV (Rio Grand Valley), and Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation.

The plaintiffs are seeking a court order overturning the finding, which had no significant impact, and require a full EIS before further launches can take place.

© Thomson Reuters 2023

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Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.