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SpaceX destroys endangered species habitat, defies federal approval process

Piping Plover is one of the many species being negatively impacted by the ongoing construction of the SpaceX Starship Super Heavy Project and launch site. Photo by Michael Rossacci

While SpaceX is focusing on exploring distant planets, the company’s operations are taking a toll on planet Earth, specifically in Boca Chica, Texas. Here, the SpaceX Starship Super Heavy Project and launch site are being built and expanded, even though some of the infrastructure has yet to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is deeply concerned about the facility’s impacts on wildlife habitat and species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), including the federally Threatened Piping Plover and Red Knot, and the Endangered Northern Aplomado Falcon.

“The ecological importance of this region cannot be overstated,” said EJ Williams, ABC’s Vice President for the Southeast Region. “It’s critically important to ensure impacts to its natural resources are minimized and mitigated.”

Indeed, eBird lists 262 bird species observed on Boca Chica Beach and 178 bird species at Boca Chica State Park.

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 — from the ocelot and several species of sea turtle (Kemp’s ridley, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, and green) to the Gulf Coast population of the jaguarundi. 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. “The SpaceX facility in Boca Chica is surrounded by federal and state public lands used by hundreds of thousands of individual birds of many different species throughout the year. It’s an especially vital place for migratory birds that pass through here each spring and fall to rest and refuel so they can successfully continue and complete their migratory journeys.”

SpaceX operations in Boca Chica have changed significantly since an 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. While a new EIS is warranted to account for ongoing major changes, the FAA has instead released a draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) — a faster, less comprehensive environmental review. The PEA does not fully address environmental, habitat, or wildlife concerns, nor does it outline alternatives for the public to consider during the comment period that closes on November 1.

And, despite the fact that the PEA is not yet finalized, SpaceX has proceeded with construction activities. The FAA has warned that SpaceX is building “at its own risk.”

SpaceX
Habitat of the Threatened Piping Plover in Boca Chica, littered with debris from SpaceX operations. Photo by Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program

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 of these species are designated as Birds of Conservation Concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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 has decreased by 54 percent over the past 3 years (2018-2021) since SpaceX set up operations testing and launching rockets — indicating the declining health of the bird’s habitat.

“Human disturbances, such as highly developed beaches with large numbers of people and associated coastal recreation, have been proven to lead to decreased health and survival of Piping Plovers,” said Kacy Ray, ABC’s Gulf Coastal Program Manager. “If activities like beach recreation can impact a species’ overall survival, imagine how the impacts of rocket testing, launching, and explosions could threaten the health and survival of the same species, let alone the habitat it depends on.”

“Like most people, I’m a fan of space exploration,” said Williams. “The issue is the destruction of sensitive and unique habitats that birds depend on for survival. It is critical that the FAA conduct a full-scale environmental impact study that presents multiple alternatives so the public and stakeholders can better understand and evaluate how SpaceX operations are going to impact Boca Chica and its wildlife.”

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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