FAA faces legal challenge over SpaceX’s damage to local environment

May 2, 2023, 2:27 AM UTC
3 mins read
FAA faces legal challenge over SpaceX's damage to local environment
(Courtesy of SpaceX)

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is facing legal action from environmental groups and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas after a SpaceX Starship launch caused extensive damage to the local environment. The explosion that occurred during the launch obliterated the launch pad and sent dust and debris flying for miles. The resulting ash scattered over areas where endangered species live, including the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, piping plover, and critically endangered ocelot. The incident also sparked a 3.5-acre blaze, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The lawsuit alleges that the FAA failed to conduct a comprehensive environmental review of the potential risks posed by SpaceX’s operations in Boca Chica, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The groups are concerned about heightened fire risk, pollution, light, and heat from the program that could negatively affect the surrounding environment. The complaint emphasizes that allowing SpaceX to launch the largest rockets known to humankind is a significant federal action that requires a thorough analysis.

Despite these concerns, the FAA allowed SpaceX to submit a limited assessment instead of a more comprehensive environmental review after determining that launches would not significantly impact the nearby environment. The plaintiffs are now calling on the agency to conduct a full review of the potential risks and have accused the FAA of violating the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to fully assess alternatives, including launching rockets from the Kennedy Space Center instead of Boca Chica.

The Boca Chica launch site sits within one of the most biologically diverse parts of the continent, and the explosion has caused significant damage to the area. In the past five years, at least eight rockets have exploded at the site, according to the complaint. The Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas, whose creation story is linked to the Boca Chica area, has expressed deep concern about the impact of SpaceX’s operations on their ancestral lands and the environment.

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 FAA previously permitted SpaceX to launch up to 20 rockets a year over the next five years at Boca Chica. However, the explosion has raised questions about the safety of these launches and their impact on the environment. The plaintiffs are now calling for a full review of SpaceX’s operations in Boca Chica to ensure that the environment and the local community are protected.

The FAA has declined to comment on the ongoing litigation, and SpaceX is not listed as a defendant in the suit. The lawsuit focuses on the FAA’s responsibility to adhere to the National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock environmental law in the United States that ensures that communities can review environmental assessments and provide their feedback. The lawsuit highlights the need for a more thorough review of the environmental risks associated with space exploration and underscores the importance of protecting the environment and endangered species.

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