EXCLUSIVE: SpaceX facility under FAA review after changing rocket tests in South Texas

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Residents, environmentalists charge SpaceX with 'bait and switch' to community

BOCA CHICA BEACH, Texas (Border Report) — Ellen Tyma and Dan Griffen built their retirement home 15 years ago on the banks of the Rio Grande to spend the days kayaking, jet skiing and enjoying the river. But since SpaceX built its South Texas launch facility 12 miles away, their quiet lives have been upended.

Now, without warning, the main road leading to their home and a popular beach is frequently closed for test launches, including twice last week.

The couple and other South Texans say when SpaceX was wooing the community in 2013 to develop its site here, they billed it as a launch facility — not a testing facility.

Ellen Tyma, 61, and Dan Griffen, 77, are seen June 22, 2020 on the dock of their retirement home overlooking the Rio Grande and Mexico near Boca Chica Beach, Texas. They must show ID to pass road closure checkpoints when SpaceX tests rockets at its South Texas launch facility built 12 miles from their home. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Since opening, SpaceX’s mission and projects at the facility have substantially changed and many residents now want more federal regulation on the activities at this site. They also want another environmental impact study done to ensure that these added tests do not pose a threat to communities or nearby wildlife, especially after the recent May 29 explosion of a rocket engine during a test — caught on camera by Border Report — and a July 2019 brush fire ignited by another test.

Border Report asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA,) the agency in charge of oversight of this facility, whether current SpaceX activities comply with agency regulations stipulated in the FAA’s 2014 final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which allowed SpaceX to build its Texas Launch Facility a half-mile from Boca Chica Beach on the Gulf Coast in an ecological wetland where sea turtles nest in rural Cameron County.

Endangered sea turtles nest on Boca Chica Beach in South Texas, which is located less than a mile from the SpaceX Texas Launch Facility. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Border Report was told the FAA had not approved significant plans that SpaceX has for the facility since the company told the agency it had switched projects and is now using this facility to develop a new, massive spacecraft to travel to Mars, called the Starship. The FAA also said it has begun a new environmental review of the company’s new plans.

“The current testing falls within the current EIS. However, a full-scale Starship launch site falls outside the scope of the 2014 EIS. The FAA is in the early stages of an environmental review. Any proposal must meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the FAA’s policies and procedures for conducting a NEPA review,” an FAA official wrote in an email to Border Report on Friday.

A full-scale Starship launch site falls outside the scope of the 2014 EIS. The FAA is in the early stages of an environmental review.”

FAA official

When SpaceX asked the FAA for permission to build the world’s first commercial space launch facility in South Texas, it told the agency and South Texas communities that this site would be used to launch its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Subsequent environmental assessments conducted by the FAA allowed for up to 12 launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy per year — not the Starship with its super-heavy rocket that stands nearly 400 feet tall and is being developed to haul in excess of 100 metric tons to Earth’s orbit, and eventually to Mars.

SpaceX’s Starship prototype is seen on Oct. 1, 2019, at the company’s Texas Launch Facility near Boca Chica Beach. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

SpaceX’s Raptor rocket engines, which are reusable combustion engines that power the massive Starship spacecraft, are already being tested at the South Texas launch site. In fact, it was a test firing of a Raptor engine on May 29 that caused the concussive and fiery explosion of a Starship prototype. The blast was felt 5 miles away on South Padre Island and shook locals who now say they are very concerned about what is truly going on at the SpaceX facility.

Watch exclusive Border Report video of the May 29 explosion

The FAA said testing of the Raptor rocket engines is OK. But environmentalists and South Texas residents, like Tyma, disagree.

She said SpaceX has done a “bait and switch” from what they originally said this facility would be used. She and others told Border Report they now worry about the potential harm to humans and area wildlife that this new project and increased testing could cause.

Ellen Tyma is seen holds a brochure from a May 7, 2013, public meeting she and her husband, Dan Griffen, attended to learn about a new launch facility that SpaceX intended to build in South Texas near their home in rural Cameron County, Texas. She said the company did not mention repeated rocket tests or excessive road closures at that meeting. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“We attended the original meetings on how they were going to be a ‘good neighbor’ and have ‘a minimal impact’ and the only time they were going to be an inconvenience was when they were going to launch the Falcon Heavy and that would be when they requested the residents in the (Boca Chica) Village might want to evacuate for 24 hours during those launch times. Now, it’s become a testing facility where the roads are blocked, we have to show ID to come to our homes,” 61-year-old Tyma said recently as she and her husband sat on their boat dock overlooking a dozen horses drinking from the Mexican side of the riverbank.

We’re like mushrooms, they keep us in the dark. Nobody tells us anything.”

Cameron County resident Ellen Tyma

“We’re like mushrooms, they keep us in the dark. Nobody tells us anything,” she added.

Tyma said the couple attended an FAA public hearing in May 2013 and said SpaceX officials told them there would be no more than 12 launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy per year, and only then would Highway 4 close on the way to their home and Boca Chica Beach. “And they said it would be more like just six launches,” she said, adding that Starship was never mentioned.

“Now, they’re closing a public beach whenever they choose. It was only supposed to be a maximum of 12 times per year. We’ve exceeded that 10 times over in this year already,” said Tyma, who is originally from Rockville, Md.

Cleanup and construction continued on June 22, 2020, at SpaceX’s Texas Launch Facility near Boca Chica Beach, where a test fire of an engine ignited an explosion on May 29, 2020. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

In the past month, Cameron County officials have issued 13 orders to close the beach due to SpaceX testing. There also have been several days that the orders have been revoked, but residents like Tyme and Griffen say they just want to go to their local beach, not spend hours looking at the county’s website to see whether it is open, or whether the highway will be closed on any given day.

“Boca Chica Beach is a state park, not only a county beach. They just do what they want to do,” said Griffen, 77, a retired truck driver.

Border Report has repeatedly reached out to SpaceX for comment to this story but has not received a response.

Stefanie Herweck, an environmental studies professor at a South Texas college and member of the nonprofit Save RGV, also attended the May 2013 FAA public hearing, as well as several “scoping” meetings where she said the FAA was supposed to determine the necessary scope of evaluation to ensure the safety of all residents and the environment when dealing with a multi-million dollar facility of this kind.

Herweck said the Starship spacecraft was never brought up and its impact was not studied, according to the May 2014 EIS final report. She said “the FAA is shirking their regulatory duties and they’re not doing due diligence” by allowing SpaceX to conduct tests of a completely different rocket product so close to the fragile wetland ecology, and South Texas homes and public beaches.

“Any large project like this has to be vetted and has to go through a series of scientific evaluations in order to determine the safety, the effects on that environment and the effects on communities and on people’s lives,” Herweck said. “The project that they were going to do completely and fundamentally changed. There is no Falcon Heavy rocket being launched and instead they are testing the Starship and they went forward with this idea for this to be a testing facility. That’s a completely different set of activities and it has completely different impacts. However, the regulatory agency that is was supposed to be guiding this environmental impact process, the FAA, allowed SpaceX.”

The project that they were going to do completely and fundamentally changed.”

South Texas environmental studies professor Stefanie Herweck

Five years after the FAA issued its Final Environmental Impact Statement, the agency issued a 23-page “Written Re-Evaluation of the 2014 Final Environmental Impact Statement for the SpaceX Texas Launch Site,” on May 21, 2019, that acknowledged SpaceX had switched from the Falcon program to the Starship project that included a new “experimental test program.”

The 400-page Final EIS issued by the FAA allows SpaceX up to 12 launches per year at the Texas Launch Site.

But Herweck, who is familiar with environmental assessment protocols, says the agency failed to inform the public of this information. And she says at this point a new EIS should have been conducted.

“The FAA allowed SpaceX, just to write up a 23-page document that describes how they’re going to change it,” Herweck said. “And they kind of just rubber-stamped it and essentially allowed SpaceX to write a ‘P.S. we’re changing it entirely.'”

(FAA) rubber-stamped it and essentially allowed SpaceX to write a ‘P.S. We’re changing it entirely.'”

South Texas environmental studies professor Stefanie Herweck

Three months later, in a 5-page addendum issued by the FAA on Aug. 21, 2019, the agency signed off on the change, saying no further environmental study would be needed. “The data contained in the 2014 EIS remain substantially valid, that there are no significant environmental changes, and that all pertinent conditions and requirements of the prior approval have been met or will be met in the current action. Therefore, the preparation of a supplemental or new environmental document is not necessary,” the report said.

In the past year, locals say, construction at the facility has increased tremendously in size and scope. And SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk recently said on social media he “is buiding” a floating launch platform near Brownsville, Texas, presumably in the Gulf of Mexico.

A map listed in the May 2019 Written Re-Evaluation shows the company wants to put a 30-foot-tall methane flare stack to vent methane. The document says “up to three tons of methane would be remaining in a reusable test vehicle, and that “SpaceX is currently working to design a safe method to transfer the methane back to the tanks and reduce the amount of methane released.”

Methane flare and methane tanks are shown in this map in the FAA’s 2019 Written Re-Evaluation of the SpaceX Texas Launch Facility.

Herweck said an EIS can take sometimes years to complete and involves scientists investigating potential effects to humans and wildlife from excessive noise, light, chemicals in the air and ground, as well as effects to groundwater and the economic losses to local economies from test closures.

The metamorphosis of this facility, which sits on tender tidal flats and feet from sand dunes where sea turtles lay eggs, has largely gone unnoticed and under the radar in this border community where environmentalists say they are strapped between fighting the construction of Donald Trump’s border wall through the region, and the development of three new liquefied natural gas facilities at the deepwater Port of Brownsville just 5 miles from SpaceX.

More hangars and buildings have been built 1.5 miles from the test launch pad, where SpaceX has its administrative offices, and more and more cars line the sand dunes across from the complex, and unless one travels often the 21-mile stretch of Highway 4, also known as Boca Chica Highway, that leads to the beach and passes by the SpaceX complex, it might not be so noticeable.

But a June 6 tweet by SpaceX CEO and Founder Elon Musk where he called this facility his “Starship Production Complex Boca Chica, Texas” caught the attention of environmentalists.

Jim Chapman, president of the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a nonprofit support group for South Texas’ Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, has written several FAA officials since the May 29 explosion asking whether SpaceX’s South Texas site is a test facility or a launch facility and for a new environmental study.

On Monday, Brian Rushforth, FAA chief of staff for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, replied to Chapman via email confirming the Starship development at this site and indicating a new environmental review by the federal agency would be done.

“SpaceX has informed the FAA that its future plans are to eventually conduct suborbital test flights of the Starship prototype and then operate a full-scale Starship launch site at Boca Chica. A full-scale Starship launch site falls outside the scope of the 2014 EIS. The FAA is in the beginning stages of conducting an environmental review of SpaceX’s Starship proposal in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the FAA’s policies and procedures for conducting a NEPA review (FAA Order 1050.1F),” Rushforth wrote.

But just a day later, Rushforth apparently tried to walk back his comments, writing to Chapman: “I’ve been told since yesterday the new process may be an EIS, or it may be an Environmental Assessment (EA). Either way, we are starting a new environmental analysis.”

Chapman and Herwek say the assessments are very different, and they want the FAA to begin a new and extensive vetting via a formal EIS and hold open public hearings.

“We believe that the environmental impact statement should have been redone whenever they changed their purpose of the facility in the first place. And what we’d like to see is not only that there’s a new environmental impact statement for these new changes but that they did actually go back and look at the stuff they’re doing right now and speak to those kinds of activities,” Herweck said.

Chapman added that it needs to be done quickly since Musk tweeted on June 16 that SpaceX “is building” a “floating” launch platform.

Said Griffen as he sat on his dock behind his house: “Now, Elon’s talking about building a floating platform off Boca Chica to launch rockets. What will be next?”

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