Eeverything seemed normal as the SpaceX spacecraft soared into the sky south of Texas last March, with tangerine flames and white smoke plummeting behind it. But about six minutes into the test flight, the probe returned to Earth.
SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk in 2002, has a “try, fly, fail, correct, repeat” method for its commercial space program. This approach is part of why Musk wanted to locate the launch site on land next to the Gulf of Mexico, near the Texas-Mexico border. “We have a lot of land without anyone, so if it explodes, it’s great,” Musk said at a news conference in 2018.
But David Newstead, director of the nonprofit Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries, felt sick when he saw the fireball explode on the shuttle. The SpaceX site is surrounded by state and federally protected land. The blast engulfed parts of the delicate ecosystem of the Boca Chica tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (which includes tidal flats, beaches, prairies and coastal dunes that host a large amount of wildlife) with debris of rockets.
“I knew from the other explosions that the rocket would scatter all over the shelter,” Newstead said. The cleanup took three months, he added.
The private space race is already worrying about the possible climatic impacts of the fuel needed to propel rockets. But South Texas terrain environmentalists say the SpaceX test site has more immediate impacts.
The shelter is made up of parcels that the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service has been buying or renting since 1979, when the federal agency came up with its plan to preserve most of the land hidden off the Gulf Coast and the Gulf Coast. mouth of the Rio Grande River as possible, creating a mosaic of federally administered refuge lands. As part of this, the agency has been managing Boca Chica State Park since 2007, a 404-hectare (1,000-acre) site.
Boca Chica is a key part of the Laguna Madre hypersaline lagoon system and is home to a large number of vulnerable species. Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles make every nest on the shores of Boca Chica beach every spring, while shorebirds like rainforests look to the tide to find food. The shelter also houses endangered ocelots, the wild cats that once roamed the southwest.
“It’s one of the most unique places on Earth,” said Jim Chapman, a local Save Rio Grande Valley environmentalist.
Many Texas officials consider the presence of SpaceX a coup for the state. They had been interested in catching Musk since he started talking about building a private spaceport in 2011. State lawmakers passed a law in 2013 that gave SpaceX the right to close Boca Chica beach during testing. and releases. They also allowed limited road closures on Texas Highway 4, the only road to the SpaceX site and to the Boca Chica section of the shelter.
In 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration issued its environmental impact statement, finding that SpaceX’s proposal for the region “would have no significant impact on the environment”. Newstead said it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, most people assumed that fishermen and beach fishermen, U.S. Fish and Wildlife shelter managers who supervised sea turtles and conservationists studying the most 200 species of birds in the region would be able to coexist with SpaceX.
When Musk formally announced that Boca Chica had been selected, most people focused on the opportunity. “They saw us as a border town, with all the negative rhetoric that goes with it,” said Josh Mejia, executive director of the Brownsville Community Investment Corporation. “But SpaceX chose to build here, that gave us a huge validation. Other companies finally started looking at us and seeing potential. ”
SpaceX ground activity intensified when rocket testing began in 2019. Dirt mounds were quickly replaced by fuel storage tanks, construction equipment, a sea of Airstream trailers and the latest bright rocket on the launcher. SpaceX employees and contractors constantly drove up and down Texas State Highway 4 and used the sidewalks of roads (technically state land managed by the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service) to park.
In April, SpaceX requested to expand its current site by filling 17 acres of wetlands, which the EPA suggested could have “substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on aquatic resources of national importance.”
Local environmentalists are increasingly concerned that SpaceX will dominate the road and shelter land around it, closing roads and beaches for more than 300 hours allowed. In 2019, U.S. Fish and Wildlife sent a letter to the FAA calling for road closures and SpaceX testing to be stopped until “non-compliance issues are resolved.” In June, the agency wrote back to the FAA about SpaceX reporting “unauthorized attacks and violation of the shelter,” according to 60 Minutes, including parking on refugee land and the installation of a ditch. drainage.
In 2021, Save Rio Grande Valley wrote to the Cameron County District Attorney stating that SpaceX had cut off access to the beach and shelter for more than 1,000 hours. In response to inquiries from the district attorney, SpaceX denied that the company’s road closures had exceeded the 300 hours allowed, claiming that local environmentalists’ claims “were not accurate.”
“It’s really been shocking to witness the way the federal government has allowed this to happen,” said Bryan Bird of the Wildlife Advocate, a nonprofit. “Elon Musk is building a space complex in one of the most environmentally diverse and inappropriate places in the world.”
Launch site ditches, both on SpaceX land and on public property, have dumped runoff directly into tidal flats, Newstead said, where he and his field workers track snowy rainforest nesting sites. , a wading bird that is close to landing the endangered federal species. list.
Newstead would need a government agency to conduct the intensive rounds of ecological monitoring and study needed to understand how local life is being affected by the presence of SpaceX, but it has already seen a shift to snowy storms.
There used to be about a dozen tidal nests on the shores of Boca Chica, where the shelter is owned by SpaceX every spring, but last year the organization found that only two pairs of snowy rainforests were nesting. . This year they have only seen one. Newstead has also reduced the annual census of non-profit migratory birds and many other programs because, according to him, they cannot access the shelter often enough to conduct the survey.
“They’re complex systems, some of the only ones of their kind left in the world,” Newstead said. “I never thought there would be any impact on SpaceX being here, but I did think government agencies would do more to make sure things like this don’t happen. I’m afraid of what we’ll find when we go out to look for their nests. next spring ”.
Jim Blackburn, a professor of environmental law at Rice University, said complaints about the lack of enforcement of environmental regulations are common. “A lot of people think that because we have these laws, the environment is protected, but it doesn’t work that way. The people who work in the field for these agencies often have good intentions, but if there is the political will to allow a project like SpaceX to happen, that’s what happens. ”
Neither SpaceX nor the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service responded to the Guardian’s requests for comment. The FAA told the Guardian that the closures are implemented and enforced locally. He added that the 2014 environmental impact statement and subsequent amendments remain valid, that the agency is still working on its environmental assessment of SpaceX’s revised plans for its launch test site, and that it has no release date. at this moment.
SpaceX plans to launch the world’s largest rocket, the Texas Super Heavy Booster and Starship. Representatives from SpaceX have said they are eager to begin testing the new system, a process that many environmental advocates in the community believe will ultimately see more rocket shrapnel tearing the refuge lands. The FAA is currently conducting an environmental assessment.
In 40 years working to protect the Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Chapman said he has never cared. “People like space, they love the hype and glamor of rockets out there, but it all comes at a price,” Chapman said. “There is always someone who wants to develop the land here. Before we could trust the government to intervene, but now I’m not so sure. ”