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Thursday, 19 August 2021

Report: Government Documents Allege SpaceX has Violated FAA Permit, Encroached on Boca Chica National Wildlife Refuge



A new 60 Minutes+ report reveals that government documents back up allegations that SpaceX’s Starbase test facility in Texas has violated its federal permit through excessive road closings and has encroached and trespassed on the protected Boca Chica National Wildlife Refuge.

The documents back up a claim by the environmental group Save Rio Grande Valley (Save RGV) that SpaceX has been closing the Texas state highway that runs through its operation for more than the 300 hours per year allowed under the permit from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The organization sent a letter to the local district attorney outlining its concerns.

SpaceX responded to the district attorney with a letter saying they take the matter seriously, and that they are “committed to working cooperatively” to resolve it. They say they are honoring their agreement with the FAA, and by their count, they’ve only closed down the highway for “226 hours and 9 minutes.” SpaceX referred to the allegations brought by Save RGV as “not accurate.”

But in documents obtained by 60 Minutes+, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service communicated to the FAA that they also believe SpaceX has been exceeding their assigned hours. They calculated disruption to public access in “excess of 1,000 hours in 2019.”

Fish and Wildlife told 60 Minutes+ they estimate SpaceX also exceeded their closure hours in 2020 and 2021….

Government documents reveal officials’ frustration over SpaceX’s actions, which they claim include illegal use of the neighboring Boca Chica National Wildlife Refuge.

In one letter to the FAA’s environmental protection specialist, written in April of 2019, Fish and Wildlife asked for closures and testing to stop until, “noncompliance issues are resolved.” 

A refuge manager expressed his frustration in an internal email to a Fish and Wildlife biologist. They wrote, “this is totally unacceptable. If we don’t stop this now, we’ll never be able to reel it back in.” They added, “how do we stop this thing in its tracks and start over?”

In a letter to SpaceX’s director of starship operations dated June 21, 2021, a Fish and Wildlife complex refuge manager described, “unauthorized encroachments and trespass on the refuge.” He attached photographs that he said shows SpaceX’s employees using refuge lands as a parking lot and, in another one, a drainage ditch on protected land. 

In March, a prototype of the Starship rocket exploded during a flight test, sending debris into the wildlife refuge. It took more than three months to clean up the debris.

SpaceX didn’t respond when 60 Minutes+ asked for comment on the story.

SpaceX originally planned 12 launches annually of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from the Boca Chica facility, which sits just north of the Mexican border. The company abandoned that plan and has instead been conducting tests on its much larger Super Heavy/Starship launch system.

A new environmental review is underway to determine whether SpaceX can use the site for operation of these larger rockets. The company is looking to expand the footprint of its Starbase site.

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