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FAA gives go-ahead to wildlife-harming SpaceX facility

SpaceX
Wilson’s Plover with debris from SpaceX operations in Boca Chica, Texas. Image credit: Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program (CBBEP)

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that SpaceX can move ahead with the proposed Starship Super Heavy Project in Boca Chica, Texas — a facility that American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has been raising concerns about for the past two years, including through a recent petition generating more than 30,000 signatures from concerned citizens.  

“We are disappointed in this decision, but surely Elon Musk and his team don’t actually want to harm endangered species. We’re hoping that the SpaceX team will see that life here on Earth is worthy of more consideration and agree to minimizing the impacts at the Boca Chica facility,” said Mike Parr, ABC President. 

Federal and state public lands surrounding the SpaceX facility in Boca Chica are used by hundreds of thousands of individual birds of many different species throughout the year. Migratory birds like Yellow-billed Cuckoos and Golden-winged Warblers pass through each spring and fall to rest and refuel. Species that breed in the area, like the Reddish Egret and Wilson’s Plover, are already nesting in adjacent conservation areas.

ABC is deeply concerned about the facility’s impacts on wildlife habitat that support these birds, as well as species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), including the federally threatened Piping Plover and Red Knot, and the endangered Northern Aplomado Falcon. 

SpaceX operations in Boca Chica have changed significantly since the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the site was published by the FAA in 2014. For example, the 2014 EIS made no mention of the natural gas facility now being developed to extract and deliver fuel to the site. SpaceX has proceeded with this infrastructure, despite the fact that it has not been approved by the FAA. 

“SpaceX has shown a blatant disregard for Boca Chica’s natural habitats. The area here is not just empty space for fuselage debris and waste,” said EJ Williams, ABC’s Vice President for the Southeast Region.

Since 2014, rocket debris, fires, and construction activities have damaged federal and state public lands surrounding the Boca Chica site. Increased traffic on State Highway 4 has led to mortality of wildlife, with carcasses of Snowy Plover, Common Nighthawk, Harris’s Hawk, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Eastern Meadowlark found over the past two years. All these species are designated as Birds of Conservation Concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A new Environmental Impact Statement is warranted to account for ongoing major changes since the original 2014 EIS. However, the FAA instead released a draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) last fall — a faster, less comprehensive environmental review. The PEA does not fully address environmental, habitat, or wildlife concerns, nor did it outline alternatives for the public to consider during the comment period that closed in November 2021. 

The final PEA was initially planned for release by the end of December 2021, but the date has since been delayed several times. The FAA said that these delays have been caused, in part, by the need to review more than 17,000 comments submitted by the public — the majority of which were submitted as the result of ABC outreach efforts. This year, ABC has also collected 30,000 signatures on a petition asking the FAA to conduct a full-scale environmental review (an EIS), which have been delivered to SpaceX’s media team.

Meanwhile, the damage to local wildlife continues. Piping Plovers winter in the habitat surrounding the Boca Chica SpaceX facility. According to an analysis by Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, the Piping Plover population in the Boca Chica region decreased by 54 percent over 3 years (2018-2021) when SpaceX set up operations testing and began launching rockets — indicating the declining health of the bird’s habitat.

“Research strongly supports that human disturbance negatively impacts birds,” said Richard Gibbons, ABC’s Gulf Conservation Program Manager. “If a person being too close to a bird can cause stress and reduce survival, it’s worth considering the negative impact that rocket testing, launching, and explosions could have on these protected and declining species.”

In addition to threatened and endangered birds, the area surrounding the Boca Chica SpaceX site provides sensitive habitat for other wildlife listed under the ESA — including the ocelot and several species of sea turtle (Kemp’s Ridley, Hawksbill, Leatherback, Loggerhead, and Green). This habitat has been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as an aquatic resource of national importance (ARNI). It’s also home to some of the country’s most diverse communities of wind-tidal flats, mid-delta thorn forest, and mid-valley riparian woodlands.

“Boca Chica is incredibly important to birds,” said Williams. “Conservationists and wildlife agencies have worked for decades to conserve the unique wetlands and thornscrub habitats that surround the SpaceX facility. It’s critically important to ensure impacts to these natural resources are minimized and mitigated.”

Thanks to American Bird Conservancy for providing this news.

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American Bird Conservancy

American Bird Conservancy

American Bird Conservancy is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. It contributes the “Eye on Conservation” column in each issue of BirdWatching.

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