Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch site threatens wildlife, Texas environmental groups say

All seemed to be normal when SpaceX's Starship flew into the sky above south Texas last March. There were tangerine flames behind it and white smoke. The spacecraft crashed back to Earth after six minutes of the test flight.
SpaceX, which was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, uses a test, fly fail, fix, and repeat approach for its commercial space program. Musk chose to locate the launch site on land near the Gulf of Mexico and close to Mexico's border with Texas because of this approach. Musk stated at a 2018 press conference that he has a lot of land and no one around so it's cool if it explodes.

David Newstead, the director of the non-profit Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries felt sick when he saw the fireball on the launchpad. SpaceX's site is protected by federal and state lands. The blast contaminated parts of the fragile ecosystem of Boca Chica, Lower Rio Grande Valley national Wildlife Refuge, which includes tidal flats and beaches, grasslands, and coastal dunes. This refuge is home to a wide range of wildlife, including rocket debris.

Newstead stated that he knew from other explosions that the rocket would be scattered throughout the refuge. He added that cleanup took three months.

Concerns about climate impact from the rocket fuel are already being raised by the private space race. However, environmentalists in South Texas claim that SpaceX's testing site has more immediate consequences.

An exploded SpaceX Starship remains on the ground in Boca Chica Texas, Texas in May. Photograph: Reginald Mathalone/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

The refuge is comprised of parcels that the US Fish and Wildlife Service have been purchasing or leasing since 1979, when the federal agency devised its plan to preserve as much land as possible along the Gulf Coast and mouth of the Rio Grande River. This created a patchwork federally managed refuge land. Since 2007, the agency has managed Boca Chica state parks, which cover a total of 1,000 acres (404 ha).

Boca Chica is an important part of the Laguna Madre hypersaline lagoon system. It is home to many vulnerable species. Each spring, the Kemps Ridley sea Turtles nest along Boca Chica Beach. Shorebirds like plovers eat the tidal flats in search of food. The refuge also houses endangered ocelots, wild cats that once roamed the south-west.

It is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, according to Jim Chapman, an environmentalist from Save Rio Grande Valley.

SpaceX's presence is considered a coup by many Texas officials. Since Musk first started talking about building a private satellite port in 2011, they had been interested in Musk's wooing. In 2013, state legislators passed a bill that gave SpaceX the power to close Boca Chica beach for launches and testing. They also allowed limited road closures on Texas Highway 4 (the only road leading to the SpaceX site or to the Boca Chica area of the refuge),

The Federal Aviation Administration released its 2014 environmental impact statement. It found that SpaceX's proposal to the region would not have a significant impact on the environment. Newstead stated that it didn't seem like a major issue at the time. Most people assumed that the beachgoers and US Fish and Wildlife refuge managers, who monitor the sea turtles, and conservationists studying more than 200 bird species in the region would be able coexist with SpaceX.

Most people were focused on the possibility when Musk announced that Boca Chica was selected. According to Josh Mejia (executive director of Brownsville Community Investment Corporation), we were perceived as a border community. SpaceX's decision to build here was a huge validation. We were finally seen by other businesses who see potential.

SpaceX's ground activity grew as rocket testing began in 2019. The dirt mounds were soon replaced with fuel storage tanks and construction equipment. Finally, the latest rocket was gleaming at the launchpad. SpaceX contractors and employees were driving up and down Texas State Highway 4 and parking on roadsides that technically belonged to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

SpaceX filed a request to expand its existing site, filling in 17 acres with wetlands. The EPA warned that this could have significant and unacceptable adverse effects on national aquatic resources.

SpaceX's Starship SN8 was passed by birds on December 4, just days before a test launch at Boca Chica (Texas). Photograph: Gene Blevins/Reuters

Local environmentalists are becoming more concerned about the way SpaceX is dominating roads and refuge land, closing roads and beaches longer than the 300 hours allowed. US Fish and Wildlife wrote to the FAA in 2019 asking for SpaceX's road closures and testing to be stopped until compliance issues are addressed. 60 Minutes reports that SpaceX reported unauthorized encroachments on refuge land in June.

Save Rio Grande Valley wrote to Cameron County District Attorney in 2021 claiming that SpaceX had blocked access to the refuge and beach for over 1,000 hours. SpaceX responded to the questions of the district attorney by denying that company road closures had exceeded 300 hours and stating that local environmentalists were incorrect.

Bryan Bird of Defenders of Wildlife, a national environmental non-profit, stated that it was shocking to see the federal government allow this to happen. Elon Musk is building an area complex in one the most ecologically diverse and incongruous places in the world.

Newstead said that launch site ditches on SpaceX land as well as public property have dumped water directly into the flats. He and his fieldworkers are now able to track nesting areas for snowy plover, a wading bird close to being listed on the federal endangered species list.

Newstead stated that it would require a government agency for the extensive rounds of ecological monitoring and research necessary to understand how SpaceX's presence is affecting local wildlife. However, he has already noticed a shift in the snowy plover population.

After the SpaceX Starship prototype rocket crashed on 31 March, debris can be seen in Boca Chica National Wildlife Refuge. Photograph: Gene Blevins/Reuters

The nests used to cover the tidal flats at Boca Chica, where the refuge borders SpaceXs property every spring. However, last year, the organization only found two nests of the snowy plover. They only found one this year. Newstead also reduced the non-profit's annual migratory birds census and several other programs because they cannot access refuge frequently enough to conduct proper surveys.

Newstead stated that these complex systems are some of the last remaining of their kind in the world. Although I didn't think there would be any impact on SpaceX's presence, I thought government agencies would do more in order to prevent this from happening. I am afraid of what we might find next spring when we go looking for their nests.

Jim Blackburn, Rice University professor of environmental law, stated that complaints about the lack of enforcement of environmental regulations is common. Many people believe that the environment is protected because there are laws. But that's not the case. Although many people working for these agencies are well-intentioned, if there is political will to allow SpaceX to proceed, then that is what happens.

The Guardian reached out to SpaceX and the US Fish and Wildlife Service for comments. The FAA informed the Guardian that closures have been implemented and are enforced locally. The FAA stated that the 2014 environmental impact report and subsequent modifications remain valid. It also said that SpaceX's revised plans for launch testing at its launch site are still under environmental review by the agency. No publication date has been set.

SpaceX plans to launch the Super Heavy booster and Starship, the largest rocket in the world. It will be launched from Texas. SpaceX representatives stated that they are excited to start testing the new system. This is a process many environmental activists in the community believe will result in more rocket shrapnel causing damage to refuge lands. The FAA is currently performing an environmental assessment.

Chapman stated that he has never felt more concerned in his 40-year career of protecting the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Chapman stated that while people love space and the glamour of rockets, there is a cost to everything. Every day, someone is trying to develop this land. We used to be able to rely on the government for help, but I'm not so certain about that.