Endangered Sea Turtles, Leopards Among Concerns About SpaceX’s Proposed Launch Site Near Brownsville

Location (in red) of SpaceX's proposed commercial spaceport. (Credit: Environment Texas)
Location (in red) of SpaceX’s proposed commercial spaceport. (Credit: Environment Texas)

SpaceX’s proposed commercial spaceport south of Brownsville, Texas, is surrounded by a nearly 11,000-acre wildlife preserve that is home to multiple endangered animals, including nesting sea turtles and two species of wild cats, according to the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last June expressing concerns over how the species and wildlife preserve will be protected if the California-based launch company goes forward with its plan to construct the spaceport.

“The Sierra Club is not at this time taking a position for or against the project, and will instead withhold final judgment pending the release of more detailed information on the proposed project and mitigation,” Scheleen Walker, director
of the chapter, wrote in a letter dated June 24, 2013. “We appreciate the willingness of representatives of Space X to engage with the Sierra Club and other stakeholders and to consider various options to minimize the project’s likely impacts, and we hope to continue this dialogue.”

The letter — cosigned by Jim Chapman and Scott Nicol, co-conservation chairs of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Group — was submitted as part of public feedback on the FAA’s draft environmental impact statement. The agency is currently producing a final environmental impact statment of the project, which is expected to be released in April.

The Sierra Club is concerned about the 10,680-acre Boca Chica tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (LRGVNWR), which surrounds the proposed launch site.

The LRGVNWR was envisioned as a wildlife corridor, linking tracts of land for use by terrestrial animals, especially the ocelot and jaguarundi, which are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Boca Chica beach, adjacent to the launch site, is one of the few places where Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles, one of the world’s most critically endangered sea turtles, come ashore to nest in the spring and summer. This area also provides habitat for birds, including the piping plover and red knot, and is visited by millions of migrating birds and bats each fall and spring. In addition, construction and operation of the proposed launch site would cause destruction of critical wetlands.

The club is especially concerned about the impact of launches upon the endangered sea turtles.

The launch site is approximately 500 feet from the beach. The draft EIS notes, “Noise and vibrations from rocket launches could frighten nesting turtles, causing them to abandon their nesting attempt.” There is no information regarding the likelihood that turtles who abandon their nesting attempt would return at a later time. The final EIS should explore this impact upon sea turtles in detail. One mitigation measure described, that Space X will “avoid nighttime launches during sea turtle nesting season (March 15–October 1),” would appear to be counterproductive, as Kemp’s Ridleys are daytime nesters. Its timeframe overlaps, but does not precisely correlate, with the discussion of nesting season quoted above. It is also unclear to what extent Space X will be free to adjust launch times to accommodate nesting sea turtles or, as will be discussed later, ocelots and jaguarundi.
The letter also notes a number of other issues the Sierra Club wants the FAA to address in the final environmental impact statement, including protection of other species and the preservation of wetlands.