SpaceX explosion ‘a stone’s throw’ from nesting sea turtles, sensitive wetlands

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NEPA review requested

ALAMO, Texas (Border Report) — A massive fiery and concussive explosion on Friday at the SpaceX launch facility in South Texas could have caused untold damage to endangered wildlife and the eco-sensitive Gulf of Mexico border region, several environmentalists told Border Report on Monday.

The blast, the result of a failed rocket engine test at 1:49 p.m. on Friday, was felt up to 5 miles away at South Padre Island and shook homes about 2 miles away in the enclave of Boca Chica Village. Border Report captured the explosion on camera from about a mile away just moments after the company concluded a static test of its raptor rocket engine.


Explosion at South Texas SpaceX facility caught on camera


LabPadre, a live camera that is operated from the SpaceX administrative offices about two miles from the launch site on Boca Chica Beach, on Monday stated on its site a quick disconnect malfunction caused the explosion. The site stated cleanup of the launch pad and nearby tanks were being done on Monday.

“Unfortunately, what we thought was going to be a minor test of a quick disconnect ended up being a big problem,” the LabPadre site stated in a comment attributed to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Monday.

Environmentalists, however, say the blast caused an even bigger problem to the eco-sensitive region, which includes the endangered piping plover shorebird and Kemp’s ridley sea turtle — the most endangered sea turtle, which lays nests less than a quarter of a mile from the launch facility. And many interviewed by Border Report questioned when this South Texas facility, which was originally billed to locals as a launch pad that would at most see 12 launches per year, became a frequent testing facility, and what additional protections has the company put in place for humans and wildlife in the area.

Jim Chapman, president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, is seen at a tract of land owned by the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge on Monday, June 1, 2020, south of Alamo, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“There’s all kinds of potential impacts. There’s not just the fire and the noise and sonic boom. We’re in turtle nesting season and where the launch site is is just a stone’s throw from the Boca Chica Beach so you have possible impacts on nesting sea turtles and one endangered species, the piping plover has habitat in that area,” 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 said Monday.

“It looks kind of flat and empty but in fact it is a diverse area in terms of plants and animals. And the impacts are so much greater than they promised or they said they would cause when they were getting their environmental permits back in 2014 and I think there’s so many aspects to where they’ve really ignored their promises,” Chapman said.

The impacts are so much greater than (SpaceX) promised or they said they would cause.”

Jim Chapman, president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor

An FAA report from May 2014, the “Final Impact Environmental Statement SpaceX Texas Launch Site,” gave the space company permission to build and operate the facility with up to 12 launches per year, as well as static engine tests, but at the time listed its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, not its super heavy-lift launch vehicle Starship, which the raptor engine is slated for, to travel to Mars.

“FAA to issue launch licenses and/or experimental permits to SpaceX that would allow SpaceX to conduct launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy orbital vertical launch vehicles and a variety of reusable suborbital launch vehicles from a private launch site on privately owned property in Cameron County, Texas. Proposed launch operations would consist of up to 12 commercial launch operations per year, including launches of the Falcon 9, a maximum of two Falcon Heavy launches, and/or associated mission rehearsals and static fire engine testing, through the year 2025,” the 392-page report stated.

This was the fourth failed test of this Starship rocket. A test in late July of SpaceX’s Starhopper in South Texas, caused several wildfires at nearby Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area as the craft went up 65 feet, Business Insider reported.

The launch facility was built less than a mile from Boca Chica Beach, and about three miles from the border with Mexico. It is surrounded by tracts of wildlife refuge amidst tidal flats and sea prairie scrub. The City of Brownsville and several local municipalities helped to woo SpaceX to the region with massive financial incentive packages and promising to close the beaches during launches. It also is exempt from border wall construction.

But Chapman said in 2019, there were 34 times the beach and surrounding areas were closed, which far exceeds the 12 that they had expected. And that means that residents who live off Highway 4, which connects to Boca Chica Beach, are inconvenienced by not being able to access their homes, and the many wildlife refuge tracks and Brazos State Park, were also closed.

A sign at Boca Chica Beach, a quarter-mile from the SpaceX launch pad, warns of “Sea Turtle Nesting Season.” (Sandra Sanchez/BorderReport)

“I don’t think they were planning or at least telling anybody it was a testing facility. It was a launching facility. When you test you do a lot more testing than you are actually launching. Whether that was deceptive all along or whether that was the way that site evolved, nevertheless their environmental permits don’t say anything about testing and the closure was going to be much more limited. There are all sorts of things where they haven’t been straight-up,” Chapman said.

Border Report has reached out to SpaceX for comment and will update this story if information is received.

Stefanie Herweck, an environmental studies professor in South Texas, said if the company is going to be focusing primarily on tests, then a new environmental impact statement should be issued and new public hearings held to discuss the potential danger to nearby residents, wildlife and the ecology.

“It’s not just about this blast. There’s a bigger problem,” Herweck said. “We need a transparent public process to consider the changes that SpaceX has made in transforming from shooting certain particular rockets to these more experimental type of activities. As the public, we need to be able to know exactly what those changes are and to consider if they are in fact keeping with the environmental impact statement. It doesn’t mesh with the extreme ecological sensitivity of that region.”

“That is really and truly one of the most ecologically sensitivity regions that we have,” Herweck said. “There are endangered species, precious wetlands that help with climate change and sea-level rise, aquatic nurseries that feed our fisheries and shrimping industry, and we just cannot afford for this kind of anything-goes Wild-West experimentation that Elon Musk is doing in an area that sensitive.”

We just cannot afford for this kind of anything-goes Wild-West experimentation that Elon Musk is doing in an area that sensitive.”

Stefanie Herweck, environmental studies professor

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires the EPA to review environmental impact statements by federal governing agencies, which in this case is the Federal Aviation Administration. But environmentalists point out that under President Donald Trump the EPA budget has been cut by one-third and its powers have been reduced.

Myles Traphagen, borderlands program coordinator for the nonprofit Wildlands Network, is seen at the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona on Nov. 8, 2019, where new border wall was going up. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Myles Traphagen, borderlands program coordinator for the nonprofit Wildlands Network, said NEPA should require a review of the original environmental impact statement and if there are changes to the focus and scope of SpaceX’s activities since it was originally prepared, then a new study should be conducted and the public informed.

Blasts, such as Friday’s “can cause fires that are out of season. There can be toxic chemicals that are released into the wetland system and ocean. There’s also the threat of dangerous debris when you have an explosion and the effect of noise and sonic boom on wildlife, especially water fowl,” Traphagen said. “Something of this magnitude, a space rocket-testing facility should really require a NEPA review.”

A sign near Boca Chica Beach touts the endangered animals, such as the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and piping plover. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanche)

Traphagen, who specializes in borderland species, said the sex of sea turtle reptiles is determined as the eggs are developing in the sand and is affected by heat. Traphagen said eggs that get hotter tend to produce more females, and that could result in a reduction in sea turtle population in the region if there are not enough males to help populate.

“The eggs are incubated at a certain temperature — a sweet spot in the soil — so you have an even number of males and females. The higher temperature, the more females you will produce,” Traphagen said. “There is no X/Y chromosone. The sex ratio is determined by the eggs.”

Friday’s blast sent fiery debris falling from the sky in chunks, and the sonic-boom-like sound was heard for miles.

“This will take a long time to know because of a long generation time with these turtles. We might not be aware of this until 15 years down the road that we have all females or all males,” Traphagen said.

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