by Douglas Messier
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) held two public hearings last week on the preliminary environmental assessment on SpaceX’s plans to expand its operation at Boca Chica in Texas. One was held on Monday, and the other two days later.
The commenters have been a very mixed bag, with very few actually focused on the environmental impacts of enlarging the base to launch SpaceX’s massive Super Heavy/Starship vehicle. When FAA approved the Boca Chica site in 2014, SpaceX had been planning to launch a dozen smaller Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets annually from the facility.
The commenters fell several overlapping categories:
SpaceX/Elon Musk Fans: They are true believers in the man and his mission to make humanity a multi-planet species by establishing a settlement on Mars. Some have decried the FAA bureaucracy for allegedly holding up the effort. One commenter from India even accused the agency of doing the bidding of rival Boeing. (Not the case; the environmental review is required by federal law.)
Locals in Favor: Commenters have focused on the many financial benefits that SpaceX’s operations have brought to the Rio Grande Valley, which includes the city of Brownsville. The region is fairly impoverished so SpaceX has quickly become a major force there. Some of the commenters have said they have not seen any negative impacts on the sensitive wetlands where the SpaceX facility is located.
Locals Against: Commenters decried the disruptions that SpaceX has brought to the area, which include noise, 24/7 operations, beach and highway closings, home evacuations for tests, and negative impacts on neighboring wildlife areas.
Environmentalists: Some of the commenters actually had something to say about the topic of the hearing. Most of them questioned the wisdom of putting the launch base in the midst of sensitive wetlands that are home to a number of endangered species. The project would involve filling in 17 acres of wetlands and flood plain.
Commentators criticized what they said were flaws in the preliminary environmental assessment. They also said the FAA erred in conducting it in the first place. That might sound a bit confusing. Let’s deal with the appropriateness of the assessment first.
The FAA conducted a full environment impact statement before the FAA approved SpaceX’s operations at Boca Chica in 2014. The impact statement is a much more detailed review and costly than the environmental assessment that is being done presently.
SpaceX’s plans in 2014 were to launch up to 12 Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters annually from Boca Chica. There was also a provision, little noticed at the time, that allowed the company to fly experimental rockets at the facility.
SpaceX subsequently abandoned plans to launch Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, instead developing the much larger Super Heavy and Starship vehicles. The company has plans to launch these vehicles on suborbital and orbital flights from Boca Chica.
The FAA concluded that an environmental assessment was sufficient to evaluate the impacts the expanded operations would have on the area. However, environmentalists say the changes being proposed are significant enough to require another full environmental impact statement. That process could delay SpaceX’s operations at Boca Chica by many months.
The difference between an environmental assessment and an environmental impact statement might seem esoteric. But, the issue could prove to be a factor in any litigation that results should the FAA approve SpaceX’s expansion plans.
Commenters also criticized the report as under estimating the emissions from the facility and the impact on the local wildlife area. An anonymous engineer has written a multi-part series in which he analyzes what he sees as flaws and omissions in the preliminary environmental assessment.
FAA will be taking comments from the public until Nov. 1. The agency will then evaluate and respond to the comments, incorporating relevant ones into the preliminary environmental assessment before publishing it. FAA will then publish a document announcing its decision.
It’s not clear how long this process will take. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said he expects Starship to be ready for a suborbital flight test next month, which would require FAA approval. Starship would take off from Boca Chica and land in the ocean near Hawaii.