Conservation groups sued the Federal Aviation Administration on Monday, challenging its approval of expanded rocket launches by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company next to a national wildlife refuge in south Texas without the need for a further environmental study.

The lawsuit comes 11 days after SpaceX successfully obtained a new FAA license to send a next-generation Starship rocket on its first test flight, ending with the vehicle exploding over the Gulf of Mexico after the launch pad was blown to rubble on liftoff.

The shattering force of the launch sent pieces of reinforced concrete and metal fragments thousands of feet from the site, next to the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge near Boca Chica Park and Beach.

The blast also ignited a 3.5-acre (1.4 ha) fire and sent a cloud of crushed concrete that drifted 6.5 miles (10.5 km) to the northwest and rained down on the tidal flats and the nearby city of Port Isabel, according to the U.S. News Agency. Fish and Wildlife Service.

SpaceX hailed the launch as a qualifying success that would yield valuable data to further development of its Starship and Super Heavy rocket, two key components of NASA’s new Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon.

But the lawsuit filed Monday said the April 20 incident is the latest in a series of at least nine explosive incidents in Boca Chica, disrupting a federally protected wildlife sanctuary and vital habitat for migratory birds.

The suit says noise, light pollution, construction and road traffic also degrade the area, which is home to endangered seabirds and jaguarundi, as well as nesting sites for endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles and critical habitat for threatened shorebirds.

The disturbances show that the FAA violated federal law by allowing expanded operations at StarMask’s base in Boca Chica without authorizing a full Environmental Impact Study (EIS) normally required for major projects, the suit alleges.

The 31-page complaint seeks to revoke the FAA’s license and requires an EIS.

The FAA’s Chief of Staff for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation stated in a June 2020 email that the agency plans to conduct EIS, but the FAA “later deferred to SpaceX” and performed a less stringent review instead, according to the lawsuit.

An FAA spokesperson said that, as a matter of policy, the agency does not comment on active litigation. There was no immediate word on the issue from SpaceX.

Musk, the billionaire founder and CEO of the California-based company, faced criticism from environmentalists in remarks during Saturday’s event, saying the debris scattered at its launch last month amounted to a “man-made sandstorm.”

He said, “It’s not toxic at all or anything.” “It kicked up a lot of dust, but as far as we know, there was no appreciable harm to the environment as we know it.”

Environmental review short cut?

SpaceX has been adamantly opposed to subjecting its Starbase to an EIS audit, a process that usually takes years. The impact information system includes an extensive analysis of the project in question and the alternatives, together with mitigation plans to reduce or offset adverse impacts. It also entails public review, commentary, and often re-evaluation and supplementary study.

The FAA granted its license after a less comprehensive environmental assessment and the finding that SpaceX’s activities in Boca Chica “do not pose a significant impact” on the environment. The lawsuit challenges this finding as a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, arguing that the assessment and mitigation measures included in the license do not meet the requirements of the law.

The case highlights a history of tension between environmentalists, who have sought to limit development in Boca Chica, and Musk, a stressful businessman known for taking risks.

said Jared Margolis, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of several groups that filed the suit in federal court in the District of Columbia.

Musk said SpaceX plans to install a water-cooling system and steel reinforcements to the launch pad to prevent a repeat of blast damage, and could have it ready for another test flight of the rocket, the most powerful rocket ever built, in the next two months.

Currently, the spacecraft and the extra heavy rocket have been effectively grounded under an “unfortunate” investigation that was opened by the FAA immediately after launch, as required by law.


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