WASHINGTON — Several environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration May 1, arguing that the agency improperly carried out an environmental review of SpaceX Starship launches from Boca Chica, Texas.
The suit, filed in federal district court, seeks to revoke the FAA’s launch license for Starship launches from Boca Chica and declare that an environmental review done as part of that process violated the National Environmental Policy Act. That review, completed In June 2022, allowed SpaceX to conduct launches provided it carried out prescribed mitigations.
The lawsuit argues that the FAA failed to fully assess the impacts on the environment from launches, as well as launch failures, by the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle, citing the April 20 first integrated launch of that vehicle as an example. Thrust from the booster tore apart much of the concrete base of the pad, sending debris flying and creating a plume of sand and dust.
The suit adds that the FAA also did not take into account extended closures of the highway that leads to both the Starbase site and the neighboring public beach, which the groups argue is counter to Texas state laws that guarantees free access to such beaches. It also argues that the agency did not adequately examine alternatives to launching from Boca Chica, such as launching from the Kennedy Space Center.
“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,” said Jared Margolis, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, the lead plaintiff in the suit.
Other organizations joining the center in the lawsuit are the American Bird Conservancy, Surfrider Foundation, Save RGV and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas, Inc., an organization which represents local Native American groups. The FAA and its acting administrator, Billy Nolen, are listed as defendants, but not SpaceX.
The suit cited the April 20 launch, which it noted ended in “a fiery explosion of the rocket just after liftoff.” The rocket’s flight termination system destroyed the rocket about four minutes after liftoff, when the vehicle was at an altitude of more than 30 kilometers above the Gulf of Mexico east of the launch site, with no reports of rocket debris falling back to the pad. That launch was one of several “anomalies” during testing at the Starbase site that has included crashes by earlier Starship prototype and exploding vehicles, scattering debris.
The April 20 launch did cause damage to the launch site itself, “spewing chunks of concrete and metal, as well as ash and sand, over a large area,” the complaint stated, including nearby habitats used by protected migratory bird species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in an April 26 statement that its assessment of the damage from the launch found debris scattered over 385 acres of SpaceX property as well as the neighboring Boca Chica State Park. The plume from the launch deposited sand-like material more than 10 kilometers to the northwest. There was also evidence of a 3.5-acre wildfire caused by the launch in the vicinity of the pad.
However, the agency said it had found no evidence of birds or other wildlife killed by the launch. A photo included in an American Bird Conservancy statement about the lawsuit showed a nest of eggs that appeared to have been burned, but the organization did not state when the photo was taken or what species of bird the eggs belonged to.
In an April 29 audio chat on Twitter, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said the debris and plume were unanticipated, based on the results of previous tests that showed only modest erosion of the concrete pad. “If we had expected to dig a hole, we would not have flown,” he said. He noted the debris was “basically sand and rocks,” although particulate material can cause respiratory problems.
Musk said in that conversation that SpaceX was taking measures to prevent similar launch pad damage and creating of debris on future launches, such as installing a water deluge system. He said the company could be ready to fly again within a couple of months, although the FAA will need to sign off on those plans. The license it awarded SpaceX was originally valid for a single launch and would have to be amended by the agency before SpaceX could launch again.
That process could take place even as the federal courts take up the case, a months-long process. The plaintiffs did not announce plans to seek an injunction halting launches while the case is considered.
“At what point do we say ‘Space exploration is great, but we need to save habitats here on Earth as a top priority?’” said Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy, in the statement announcing the suit. “For the sake of future generations, let’s protect the healthy habitats we have left instead of treating them as wasteplaces for pollution and fuselage.”