'It just shouldn't be going on here'; Brownsville activists say Elon Musk's SpaceX spaceport damaging wildlife habitat – San Antonio Express-News

The SpaceX Starship SN10 performs a flip Wednesday, March 3, 2021 at the Boca Chica launch site as it prepares to return to the launch pad. The rocket landed and stood at an angle before catching fire and exploding.
Work is done Wednesday, March 24, 2021 on the SpaceX Starship SN11 in preparation for a launch later that month from the company’s Boca Chica launch site in South Texas.
Then-Gov. Rick Perry and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk break ground on the company’s spaceport at Boca Chica Beach in South Texas. (Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)
Israel Salinas holds his daughters hand as the walk across the beach from the water. Behind them looms SpaceX, which has been transforming the Boca Chica beach and Village.
Pete Maher, a Space X enthusiast stands with his dog, Sherlock, at the edge of the U.S. border on Boca Chica beach. Maher had been living at Rocket Ranch, a camp ground filled with other SpaceX fans, since January.
SpaceX “runs right up the line of what’s permitted,” says the author of a book on the company. Here, employees move a crane on the only road with access to Boca Chica Village.
BOCA CHICA — At 7:55 a.m. on March 30, the latest prototype of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft sat shrouded in fog, circled by squawking seagulls, on the company’s launch pad in Boca Chica, a half-mile from the Gulf Coast and 3 miles north of the mouth of the Rio Grande.
Despite the ugly weather, the company decided to go ahead with the launch. The plan was to bring the 160-foot-tall rocket to an altitude of about 6 miles before flipping it over and easing it back to Earth and onto a landing pad.
It would be the company’s fourth test launch of a Starship prototype since December. Each of the previous rockets had exploded: The first two crashed into the landing pad, and the third burst into a ball of fire eight minutes after landing.
At 8 a.m., the fog lit up as the rocket lifted off in a rip of thunder. One by one, its three engines shut off as it approached the peak of its ascent. About four minutes after launching, it flipped over as planned. But when SpaceX tried to turn the engines back on for landing, the rocket had what the company calls a “rapid unplanned disassembly.” In other words, it blew up.
Thousands of hunks of twisted metal, and whatever remained of the liquid oxygen and methane in the rocket’s tanks, plummeted onto the federally protected wetlands, tidal flats, coastal prairie and sand dunes that surround the launch site, home to endangered species of birds, sea turtles and wild cats.
Over the next three months, under the supervision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, SpaceX employees took heavy machinery into the protected areas to extricate the wreckage, causing further damage to avian nesting grounds. Stephanie Bilodeau, a biologist for the nonprofit Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, estimated it would take “many, many years” to repair the damage.
“You couldn’t walk one step without finding a little piece of metal debris. It was just everywhere,” she said.
As SpaceX races to return humans to the moon and bring them for the first time to Mars — founder and CEO Elon Musk’s oft-stated goal — environmentalists in the Rio Grande Valley fear that the region’s diverse habitat is being sacrificed for the cause of human exploration.
In April, SpaceX won a contract from NASA to develop a lander to bring astronauts to the Moon. In December, Musk said he was confident the company would send a manned mission to Mars by 2026. The company is seeking to test the interplanetary vehicles in Boca Chica, and both missions could end up launching from the site, depending on whether the Federal Aviation Administration awards the company an environmental permit.
The vehicles would consist of a Starship rocket stacked atop the company’s newly developed Super Heavy booster — the largest rocket ever built, twice as powerful as the Saturn V rocket that delivered Neil Armstrong to the moon.
At 230 feet tall, with a capacity of 3,400 tons of propellant — nearly three times the Starship’s capacity — the Super Heavy could inflict greater damage on the wildlife areas around the launch site if it explodes during test launches as the Starship did. It also would likely increase light and noise pollution at the launch site, which Bilodeau said have already driven birds from the area.
“The impacts are just going to be enormous. Because that’s all sensitive land — it’s wetlands, it’s tidal flats, it’s shorebird habitat. It’s been basically wild and undisturbed largely forever. That’s what makes it so valuable, particularly for birds,” said Jim Chapman, president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a nonprofit with a mission to protect the wildlife of the Rio Grande Valley. “You look at where rockets are tested, and they’re not tested in places like this. They’re tested way out in the desert, far away from people, far away from sensitive land. It’s the wrong place.”
Stephanie Bilodeau, a coastal bird biologist known to SpaceX security as the “bird lady,” checks a nest camera on mud flats near the Starship Superheavy Orbital Launch Pad being built by SpaceX on Thursday, June 17, 2021, at Boca Chica State Park near Brownsville. “It just concerns me a bit, what that’s going to look like and how that’s going to impact the birds nesting out here,” she said. “There’s a reason they want to nest here, and it’s just unfortunate if they’re forced to move elsewhere.”
“People like us are not anti-SpaceX, and we’re not anti-space program,” he added. “It’s just, it shouldn’t be going on here.”
SpaceX, which did not respond to a request for comment, hopes to begin test-launching the Super Heavy at Boca Chica in August, said Eric Berger, senior space editor at technology website Ars Technica, who has written a book about the company.
“They are moving so fast, it boggles the mind,” he said. “It’s a huge rocket with a lot of engines. So they’re going to have to learn, and that’s part of the plan. They want to find out where the problems are in the test phase, fix them and move on, as part of moving as fast as possible.”
In recent years, SpaceX has led a revolution in space travel, pioneering a method of landing its rocket boosters for reuse rather than discarding them each launch — an innovation that promises to drastically lower the cost of going into space. Much of the company’s success has come from its willingness to learn from its failures as it rapidly tests new ideas, abandoning the industry’s typically snaillike approach to innovation.
On May 5, the company’s employees at Boca Chica celebrated their first successful landing of a Starship prototype.
But that spirit of experimentation comes at a price — and that price is being paid at Boca Chica.
Since the 1970s, environmentalists have been working with state and federal agencies to preserve the habitat in Boca Chica from the threat of development and natural gas drilling.
The failure of a planned mega-resort in the 1980s allowed the federal government to take possession of thousands of acres of land and turn it into a refuge. Over the decades, numerous other large swathes have been donated to the government. They are now under the management of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Today, the SpaceX launch facility is surrounded by more than 20,000 acres of federally protected land, extending west along the Rio Grande and north toward South Padre Island. Boca Chica is an important stopover on the Central Flyway bird migration route, spanning more than 8,000 miles from the Canadian Arctic to lower South America. Hundreds of species of birds stop there to rest and replenish themselves after flying up the Mexican coast or crossing the Gulf of Mexico, the way Texans stop at a Buc-ee’s in the middle of a long drive.
The area’s isolation was part of the draw for SpaceX, giving it a freedom of action that it wouldn’t have at a busy launch site such as NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Berger said.
Musk has expressed his love of the site on Twitter: In March, he announced that he was creating the city of Starbase, Texas, followed by a bit of poetry: “From thence to Mars, and hence the stars.”
Activists in the Rio Grande Valley were “asleep at the switch” when SpaceX revealed its plans for Boca Chica in 2012, Chapman said.
“We didn’t appreciate the impact. I think we just totally underestimated them,” he said.
The company was “wildly popular” when it chose Boca Chica, he added. And it remains so among a large part of the population of the Brownsville area, where a lack of economic opportunity has driven many young residents to move elsewhere. The area’s poverty rate is nearly double that of Texas as a whole.
A mural advertises the “Boca Chica to Mars” art exhibit in Brownsville, where enthusiam for SpaceX is high because of the associated job and science opportunities.
Along with fostering economic development, “the other huge benefit is that our kids, our children, our families can grow up being enthusiastic about math and science careers, and know that they have a career path that they can see, touch and feel in their area,” said Dr. Rose Gowen, who sits on the Brownsville City Commission.
SpaceX has been rapidly building up the Boca Chica facility as it prepares to begin testing the Super Heavy. It recently constructed a 450-foot steel tower, which observers believe is designed to catch the rocket booster upon its descent.
But the company’s plans for Boca Chica hinge on whether it wins approval from the FAA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The company is asking the Corps for a permit to expand the facility over 11 acres of tidal flats and 6 acres of wetlands, while the FAA is deciding whether to allow it to launch the Starship and Super Heavy rockets into orbit.
Environmental groups such as local nonprofit SaveRGV and the American Bird Conservancy have petitioned the agencies to deny approval. But it’s not just environmentalists who have qualms about the company’s plans.
The Environmental Protection Agency has asked the Army Corps to deny the expansion permit, citing concerns over the impact on aquatic areas. In January, the Fish and Wildlife Service sent a letter to the FAA saying it had “failed to comply with its own regulations” by not ensuring that SpaceX’s proposal did everything possible to prevent harm to surrounding wildlife.
In 2014, when the FAA approved the Boca Chica facility, SpaceX presented plans that were drastically different from how it has actually used the site. The company said it would conduct a dozen launches a year of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Instead, the facility has become a testing ground for the much larger Starship and the Super Heavy rockets.
The FAA has since approved several modifications to the original permit, allowing the company to conduct the test launches.
One of the modifications addressed a fire caused by a nighttime rocket explosion in July 2019, which burned 150 acres of surrounding wildlife areas, damaging yucca trees used as nesting sites by endangered Aplomado falcons, Aubry Buzek, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an email. Firefighters had to wait to enter the site because of the volatility of the rocket fuel, she said.
Environmentalists say the frequent modifications to the original permit have prevented regulators from taking the true measure of the site’s environmental impact. They want the FAA to conduct a new environmental study, known as an Environmental Impact Statement, for the company’s latest proposal.
Joe Carrizales fishes with family as construction of the Starship Superheavy Orbital Launch Pad continues in the background Monday, June 14, 2021, at Boca Chica State Park near Brownsville. “I’ve always thought that Brownsville has the potential to be something big,” he said. “That’s how cities grow.” Carrizales said he lives about 15 minutes from the beach at the edge of the city limits, and that he sometimes feels trembling during tests.
The Fish and Wildlife Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have also asked the FAA to conduct a new study. If the FAA chooses to go that route, it could take years, Berger said.
When it comes to regulation, “I would say SpaceX runs right up the line of what’s permitted. And it will push the boundaries of what’s acceptable to regulators,” he said.
“SpaceX, while wanting to be a good neighbor and wanting to protect the public, also feels it’s within the DNA of the company to move as quickly as possible. And that comes directly from Elon Musk. That’s just who he is.”
At some point on the drive down Texas 4 toward the launch facility, and the public Boca Chica Beach beyond it, the highway begins to feel as though it is a SpaceX construction site.
After passing through the outskirts of Brownsville, about 9 miles from the coast, the highway travels through wilderness, with spiky-topped yucca plants and thick walls of thorn scrub bordering vast stretches of algae-topped mud plains and mirrorlike wetlands. The air teems with moths, butterflies and dragonflies. The SpaceX facilities appear on the horizon like a city skyline, with numerous construction cranes.
Two miles from the coast, the highway passes the facility where SpaceX assembles its rocket prototypes. After another mile and a half, it approaches the launch site, identified by a giant “Starbase” sign installed earlier this year.
On a windy Thursday morning in July, pickups and heavy construction equipment were parked directly on the through lanes of the highway. The launch facility was a busy construction site, a ruckus of grinding metal, beeping trucks and rumbling engines.
As workers stood in the middle of the highway, a construction crane parked near its edge lifted a metal tentlike structure over the highway and into the facility.
“I can’t even believe how much it’s grown,” Bilodeau said as she drove by the site in her pickup.
She typically spends one day a week in the area, roaming the tidal flats in search of nests of several species of plovers, a small shorebird that feasts on worms and crustaceans in the sand. When she finds a nest, she tags the birds with bands around their legs to monitor them.
In a normal summer, the nonprofit she works for, the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, would hire a temporary employee to monitor the nesting sites four or five days a week. But this year, with the highway closed so often due to SpaceX’s tests and launches, the nonprofit decided it wasn’t worth it, she said.
The environmental permit the company received from the FAA in 2014 entitled it to close the highway for 180 hours a year; last year, the agency increased the allowed time to 300 hours.
But SaveRGV and the Fish and Wildlife Service say the company has exceeded even that. In 2019, the Fish and Wildlife Service counted more than 1,000 closure hours, noting a “significant disparity” with the 158 hours reported by SpaceX, according to a letter the agency sent to the FAA in 2020.
In June, Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz sent a letter to SpaceX demanding an explanation after members of his staff reported being detained by one of its security guards while investigating a complaint that the company was blocking access to two public roads branching off Texas 4. He also questioned the company on whether its closure hours exceeded what was allowed by the FAA.
Cousins Andrea Gonzalez, 4, and Allison Chavez, 8, from nearby Brownsville, play in the Gulf waters at Boca Chica beach as the sunsets. Behind them sits SpaceX’s spaceport.
“While SpaceX is a valued member of our community, this does not authorize SpaceX, its employees, staff, agents, and/or contractors to disregard Texas Law,” Saenz wrote in the letter.
Shyamal Patel, the company’s senior director of Starship operations, replied that the security guard was a recent hire and had not followed his training in blocking off the road. He denied that the company had been closing the highway more often than allowed, saying that by its count it had closed it for only 226 hours so far in 2021, not 385 hours as reported by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Over the last four years, Coastal Bend has recorded a decline in the number of nests of snowy plovers, which are considered threatened in some parts of the U.S., near the launch site — from 11 in 2017 to nine in 2018, 10 in 2019, four in 2020 and zero this year. Winter Storm Uri might have helped drive away the birds this year, Bilodeau said.
“They don’t take disturbance very well,” she said. “If they even see someone from a distance, walking their way, they’ll get off of their nest and try to distract the perceived predator. Regardless of debris landing out there, just the daily activities, traffic, people constantly being around, birds aren’t going to want that. So it makes sense that they would avoid those areas.”
Coyotes and grackles, drawn by the area’s growing human presence, also pose a threat to the plovers and their eggs, she said.
After parking her truck, she walked behind a set of dumpsters across the highway from the SpaceX launch site to where she had found one of the nests she recorded in the area this year. After recent rains, trash is scattered in puddles around the dumpsters — beer cans, pizza boxes, a lighter fluid container.
This species of bird, the Wilson’s plover, digs a shallow nest in mud or sand, sometimes decorating it with seashells. Little remained of the nest she had found on this spot. After the eggs hatched in June, the mother and her chicks went elsewhere.
“This bird, she was an anomaly,” Bilodeau said.
She recalled that the mother had been much less alarmed when she approached the nest than most plovers would be — and she was willing to nest only about 40 yards from the launch site.
“She put up with a lot. For whatever reason, she really wanted to nest there,” she said. “I don’t know what she knew, but maybe she thought, ‘This is the only place I can nest right now.’”
Little remained of the nest. After the eggs hatched in June, the mother and her chicks went elsewhere.
SpaceX doesn’t often talk with the media, but space travel enthusiasts have been able to keep track of what the company is doing by peering into the launch facility. A company named RGV Aerial Photography regularly flies a plane around the site and takes pictures.
This summer, the pictures have shown SpaceX moving fast, as always — erecting the steel launch tower, piece by piece; building fuel tanks; and rolling a Super Heavy prototype to a test stand.
Five years ago, the Boca Chica facility was an empty lot. Now, it dominates the subtle landscape of wetlands and beach dunes around it. And SpaceX wants to keep it growing.