BOCA CHICA BEACH, Texas (Border Report) — Several environmental groups and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas on Monday sued the Federal Aviation Administration over the recent SpaceX launch of its Starship spacecraft, which sent debris throughout South Texas threatening sensitive wildlife areas.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Save RGV, the American Bird Conservancy and the tribe allege the FAA failed “to fully analyze and mitigate the environmental harms resulting from the SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy launch program at Boca Chica,” according to the lawsuit.
The groups want the FAA to implement stricter oversight on SpaceX’s sprawling Stargate operation, which has been built on the tip of South Texas about 23 miles outside Brownsville, and a mile from the Mexican border.
The April 20 initial test flight of Starship, powered by 33 raptor rockets, resulted in the SpaceX launchpad exploding from 17 million pounds of thrust.
The spacecraft went up, but then exploded mid-air, also raining fine debris on some areas of South Texas, like Port Isabel.
But at Boca Chica Beach and the surrounding tidal flats near the launch pad, giant concrete boulders and other debris came down hard — cutting divots into the earth and sparking a brush fire that burned three acres.
Border Report last week walked through the area with biologist Justin LeClaire of the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuary Program and noted giant pieces of foam, metal rods, and singed earth throughout a wide swath of land near the launch site.
“It’s vital that we protect life on Earth even as we look to the stars in this modern era of spaceflight,” said Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Federal officials should defend vulnerable wildlife and frontline communities, not give a pass to corporate interests that want to use treasured coastal landscapes as a dumping ground for space waste.”
“Boca Chica is central to our creation story. But we have been cut off from the land
our ancestors lived on for thousands of years due to SpaceX, which is using our
ancestral lands as a sacrifice zone for its rockets,” said Juan Mancias, tribal chair of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas.
“The administration’s failure to fully analyze the dangers of a rocket test launch and manufacturing facility mere steps from the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge and two state parks is an astonishingly bad decision,” said Mary Angela Branch, board member at the nonprofit Save RGV. “So many threatened and endangered species are counting on the agency to get this right.”
Border Report asked the FAA for a response to the lawsuit, and whether the federal agency plans stricter oversight of SpaceX following the April 20 explosion. We also asked how long the agency plans to ground the Starship from future test launches.
An FAA spokesperson told Border Report on Monday afternoon: “The FAA does not comment on ongoing litigation matters.”
Studying tidal flats
LeClaire has been studying this area for about seven years and says he has noted a decline in nesting habits of the snowy plover, a threatened shorebird that has historically had high concentration of numbers in the Boca Chica area.
“We’ve definitely seen snowy plovers move out of the area. They are not nesting along the road or near the launch site anywhere anymore, except for a few cases,” he said, adding that their cousins, the Wilson’s plovers, “as well are here in very reduced numbers. That’s not to say they have died. They don’t want to nest here anymore.”
Standing in front of sprawling mangroves and brushy bushes and cacti of this subtropical climate, he uses binoculars to try to locate the birds. When he finds a new pair, he puts tiny numbered tracking labels on their ankles to track their whereabouts and nests.
He says it’s not just the April 20 explosion that damaged the area, but the constant noise and movement of people at the SpaceX Stargate facility that they have built in what used to be a pristine environment.
“Before there was anything out here there was just the occasional beachgoer. It was very quiet and serene and now all you hear is constant beeping and vehicles going by and more people just coming to look at SpaceX, as well, not coming to enjoy the beach for what it is — a natural habitat,” LeClaire said. “People see the explosion and they say, ‘Wow, that’s really bad for the area.’ But it’s not just that. It’s everything. It’s not just that. It’s the clearing of all the land. It’s the noise, the trash.”
As he trudges through muddy tidal flats, he points out that just walking in the mud damages the surface algae that the plovers eat to survive.
It takes years for the algae to form and to be the right buffet for the birds. He says it won’t grow back quickly and the birds will have to look elsewhere for food.
He points to areas where wood was hammered in to protect vibration effects from the rocket launch but says the telltale muddy footprints show the damage that construction did to the tidal flats.
“The tidal flats especially are extremely vulnerable to human impacts. And so all this debris landing on them, it kind of destroys them, and they take a lot of time to recover. And so you can’t just go out and pick the rocks up and it’s back to kind of how it was. It can take decades for these algal mudflats to become as rich as they were previously,” he said.
LeClaire says much of what is done at Stargate is a secret, not shared with the community. And nobody really knows what chemicals were in the debris that rained down on South Texas communities — either in the form of fine silt, or giant pieces on April 20.
He also is upset that the public, including himself, was not allowed into the area for over 50 hours after the blast. He says he lost valuable time then to study the immediate after-effects of the launch and explosion on local wildlife.
Preventing future environmental damage
Monday’s lawsuit also argues the FAA failed to fully consider the climate harms of fueling rockets with liquid methane.
Border Report reached out to SpaceX and asked what environmental mitigation efforts were in place prior to the launch, why the launchpad exploded, and whether the company would consider working with local environmental groups going forward to prevent future destruction.
SpaceX has not responded, but this story will be updated if any of that information is received.