Surfrider filed a lawsuit today against the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to address environmental harms of the SpaceX Starship/ Super Heavy launch program at Boca Chica Beach in South Texas. The FAA failed to complete a full environmental review to assess harms to species, beach access closures and mitigation of explosions associated with testing and launching rockets. During the recent April 20, 2023 launch, SpaceX’s starship rocket exploded four minutes after liftoff. This launch and explosion created a small crater left in the ground where the 33-engine rocket launched, and after the explosion, particulate matter rained down on the South Texas area, including across the bay to Port Isabel. The rocket tumbled down over the Gulf of Mexico.
The SpaceX launch area sits directly adjacent to Boca Chica Beach, which is vitally important for wildlife. The launch site is surrounded by National Wildlife Refuge lands and designated critical habitat. It is relied upon by several protected species, including piping plovers, Red Knots, Northern Aplomado Falcons, Gulf Coast Jaguarundi, Ocelots, and Kemp's Ridley, Hawkbill, Leatherback, Loggerhead and Green sea turtles. The Boca Chica area is one of the most biologically diverse regions in North America and is a migratory bird corridor. Environmental impacts from this project include launches that result in high overpressure levels, sonic booms, intense sound, shock waves and debris that could be damaging to people and wildlife. Previously, a fire was caused by a Starship rocket static fire test and burned 68 acres of the adjacent national wildlife refuge.
Launch operations have also frequently shut down public access to the beach, including during the April 20th launch. SpaceX has applied to close State Highway 4 for up to 800 hours annually. The highway is the only public roadway connecting Brownsville and surrounding communities to Boca Chica Beach, the nearby state park land, and the National Wildlife Refuge. Surfrider’s South Texas Chapter opposes the frequent closure of Highway 4 for SpaceX for construction and launches. Many residents of Brownsville, including those from minority and low-income communities, have a close connection to Boca Chica and think of it as their local beach because access is free of cost, and it is closer than the beaches on South Padre Island.
The Federal Aviation Administration is charged with providing oversight and regulating U.S. commercial space transportation, but fell woefully short of their duties here. The FAA not only failed to require SpaceX to address the beach access closures and habitat destruction, but gave approval of “mitigation” efforts that are insufficient “after-the-fact” measures, such as cleanups, and fail to prevent environmental harm in the first place. The agency permitted SpaceX to launch 20 Starship/ Super Heavy rockets, the largest rocket ever made, each year for the next five years. The FAA has acknowledged that more explosions are expected to occur over the next five years, but termed these instances “anomalies” and has failed to appropriately mitigate their impacts. These explosions put people and wildlife at great risk, spraying debris throughout the area.
The Surfrider Foundation is suing the FAA to challenge the inadequate National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) review of the SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy Launch Program that failed to assess and mitigate the full range of environmental and beach access impacts of the large project. The FAA failed to complete a full environmental review by producing a Programmatic Environmental Assessment, instead of a full Environmental Impact Statement, which did not adequately address harms to species, beach access closures and mitigation of explosions associated with testing and launching rockets. In this lawsuit, the Surfrider Foundation is represented by Jared Margolis and Eric Glitzenstein from the Center for Biological Diversity (“CBD”) and attorney Dinah Bear and is joining co-plaintiffs CBD, the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas, American Bird Conservancy, and Save Rio Grande Valley.
“Of course, the continuing issues about closures of Boca Chica Beach and the only road (state highway) to the beach are of utmost importance,” said Stuart DIamond, Chair of Surfrider’s South Texas Chapter. “The closures affect all citizens' ability to use and enjoy Boca Chica Beach. An immediate concern is the HUGE debris field caused by the explosions. In the immediate area, large chunks of debris have been blown to not only the wetlands area, but also in the waters adjacent to the launch pad. This is a danger to not only wildlife, but also to people fishing, children playing in the water, and surfers. We do not know the entirety of effects these have on the bay ecosystem and wildlife."
The Federal Aviation Administration has assumed control of the investigation into the recent explosion. Following the launch, the FAA issued a statement that the SpaceX program will remain grounded pending an FAA investigation to ensure “any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety.” The FAA is also the defendant in today’s lawsuit, which was filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C.