Increased SpaceX activity, debris, concerning activists, officials

Crews recover pieces of SpaceX SN11 after its test launch on Mar. 30. The rocket exploded just before or during impact. Photo by Pedro De La Fuente, @starbasergv.

By Gaige Davila
editor@portisabelsouthpadre.com 

The remnants of SpaceX’s SN11 rocket test from Mar. 30 are strewn through Boca Chica and the surrounding wetlands, as recovery efforts are underway to recover debris. 

Right now, SpaceX, Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Park Service are recovering debris from the area, which is owned by TPWD. 

TPWD spokesperson Kirk McDonell told the PRESS that land in and around SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility, which is part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, is owned by TPWD and managed by USFWS.

Aubry Buzek, spokesperson for USFWS, told the PRESS that debris went 1,000 meters into the protected lands, and that it’s uncertain, as of now, whether they will be able to recover all of it.

Buzek told the PRESS recovery efforts have created “persistent disturbance to wildlife during the cleanup,” and that long-term effects from the debris are not known. 

The debris and accelerated activity has concerned Laguna Madre and Cameron County residents and local leadership, now faced with responding to circumstances activists had foreseen. 

Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. says that the debris needs to be gone before they can fully open Highway 4, the lone access road to Boca Chica, which he routinely orders closed when SpaceX is conducting tests.

“Public health and safety is paramount,” Trevino told the PRESS on a phone call. “We need to make sure their system is in conjunction with us and other related agencies at the state and federal level and is such that any debris does not create a potential hazard to the public at large.” 

Treviño said he is concerned with the rate of activity at SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility, wantingto limit Highway 4 closures because of the approaching summer months, anticipating more traffic as people head to Boca Chica Beach.

“This is a learning curve, and we’re trying to work in a collaborative fashion,” Treviño said of his office and SpaceX.  

SpaceX SN11 parts are seen near the space company’s Boca Chica facility. Pedro De La Fuente, @starbasergv.

SpaceX has gained federal notoriety as well from their rocket launches.

The U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee announced on Mar. 29, a day before SpaceX launched SN11, they were investigating a previous launch in December for SN8. The Federal Aviation Administration said SpaceX violated its launch license by not ensuring “far field blast overpressure” was within regulation, Reuters reported, meaning windows could have been broken from shockwaves far from the launch site.

As SpaceX CEO and Founder Elon Musk looks to incorporate Boca Chica Village, which is two miles away from the company’s facility, local activists are concerned that Brownsville’s leadership are not listening to their concerns. 

“I’m just wondering if leaders in the Valley are wondering if we need to rely on somebody in order to survive,” Xandra Treviño said, a Brownsville resident and organizer of “Fuera SpaceX,” an event to rally people to submit public comments regarding SpaceX during an April 6 Brownsville City Commission meeting. 

She testified at the event, saying Brownsville’s city leaders should invest more in the community than into SpaceX.

“I do not agree with leadership’s decision to support Elon Musk and SpaceX’s colonization of Boca Chica Village, setting aside $1.3 million for a project that is disrupting the lives of our neighbors, aiming to occupy more land that the local indigenous Carrizo tribe has worked to protect for generations, and is endangering the wildlife and environment with explosions,” her statement read.

Xandra Trevino said previous planned meetings with Brownsville leadership are often cancelled at the last minute, and at events organized regarding the concerns of Brownsville residents, invited elected officials don’t attend.

She wants to bring the topic back into political discussion, suggesting a town hall so residents and researchers can voice their concerns to Brownsville leaders.

“They seem to be paying more attention to (Musk’s) tweets than ours,” Xandra Trevino said. “If these projects are going to be done in a community, they need to listen to the community that lives there and not harm the environment.” 

Nansi Guevara, lecturer at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, artist, activist and Brownsville resident, is organizing in Brownsville by talking to residents directly and on social media, relaying information on SpaceX, the company’s plans, and the expected environmental and social impacts of its development. She, along with the Sierra Club and Another Gulf is Possible, are attempting to make this information more accessible to Brownsville residents. 

“It seems that the city has a plan for what they think economic development means for the region,” Guevara said. “Someone like me who’s working with the community and has a history working with street vendors and informal vendors around Brownsville, I see economic development very radically different.” 

She continued, “I don’t see it coming from a large, outside corporation or billionaire, I see it from investing in local communities, investing in grassroots organizing and community members that are working to create their own jobs.” 

The City of Brownsville recently announced a partnership with Spaced Ventures, a public investment portfolio for startup space companies. No further details were released about the partnership. 

Guevara says she doesn’t feel listened to by Brownsville leadership, and is worried that SpaceX’s increased presence in the city will lead to gentrification, or displacing longtime residents when property values and taxes increase because of high housing demand but low supply. She said Brownsville’s leadership is not taking the risk of gentrification seriously, particularly in response to SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk, posting on Twitter encouraging people to move to Cameron County and work at the Boca Chica facility.

“Brownsville is not so affordable, in terms of housing, right now, and so I imagine that if it gets worse, people will start to move and get pushed out from their communities,” Guevara said. 

Guevara also spoke on residents, and fishers, losing access to Boca Chica entirely, along with the protected wildlife reserves that surround SpaceX’s facility. Since SpaceX’s rise at Boca Chica, security is present that wasn’t before, giving an unwelcoming feeling to an otherwise publicly accessible beach, she said. 

“In addition to fighting a border wall and border militarization, then we’re fighting to have access to our natural resources,” Guevara said. “Boca Chica Beach is a very important natural resource for us.”

Guevara describes SpaceX’s activities at Boca Chica as no more than Musk’s hobby, one which is colonizing an area under the assumption that it will have little to no effect on the residents there. Specifically, Guevara mentioned an interview Musk, gave in 2018, saying of the future rocket launches: ‘Most likely (the launches are) going to happen at our Brownsville location because we’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, and so if it blows up, it’s cool.” 

“You’re ignoring a whole ecosystem that thrives and depends on that land not being developed,” Guevara said.

SpaceX is moving to expand its Boca Chica facility, according to a public notice from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

SpaceX is seeking an “expansion and addition of test, orbital and landing pads, integration towersm associated infrastructure, stormwater management features and vehicle parking,” according to the public notice, which was issued on Mar. 4. 

In a Google Form created by Save RGV, a nonprofit advocacy group, the fill-text focuses on SpaceX’s lack of a mitigation plan within the permit expansion request. 

“The permit should be denied, or suspended, until such time the mitigation plan is made publicly available for viewing and commenting,” the form’s fill-text reads. SaveRGV’s form also states that the notice’s “current site conditions” is misleading by not mentioning the ecosystems and wildlife present there, and that SpaceX is pursuing a permit expansion to avoid a new Environmental Impact Statement from the Environmental Protection Agency.  

“We’re not saying as residents that we are against space, or space exploration, or STEM, a lot of us love space and are often reading about space,” Guevara said. “This is a company built by a billionaire that’s like his hobby.”

Guevara says Brownsville’s leadership isn’t prepared to engage with the issues organizers are raising, lacking critical framework or vocabulary to address them.

“We don’t have local leadership that really represents the people,” Guevara said. “Because the people have this language. The community has the language.”

She continued, “we have to start building a culture of asking tough questions, making sure that our local representatives really represent us.”  

Guevara was also present in Tuesday night’s City Commission meeting, testifying to the city commissioners and mayor. None of the commissioners asked follow up questions regarding her and others’ concerns with SpaceX, which they are permitted to do. 

“Our voice is only going to get louder,” Guevara said. “This is clearly not being listened to.” 

SpaceX has created a debris hotline to use for anyone who finds debris in Boca Chica or elsewhere. Call 1-866-623-0234 or email recovery@spacex.com to report debris.

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    • John Young on April 11, 2021 at 7:59 pm
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    Lately the SpaceX Boca Chica project has violated its FAA license, suffered a launch failure that spread environmentally hazardous debris over a protected environmentally sensitive area, and has applied for an expansion of its its FAA license and USACE Section Permit opposed by Audubon, American Bird Conservancy, The U.S. Shorebird Conservation Partnership, Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, Surfrider Foundation South Texas and Save RGV from LNG. Even the Texas General Land Office voiced a number of serious concerns about the SpaceX Section 404 modification application.

    On 04-07-2021, EPA sent a letter to USACE requesting that it deny the SpaceX 404 modification as written. Quote” “The EPA finds this project may have substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on aquatic resources of national importance (ARNI). Therefore, we recommend denial of the project, as currently proposed” (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Eo0ZnNprStJvRaE5fU_ILXh_s2vN1vwC/view?fbclid=IwAR2aOPGmkstY3P7R60iVEuq7V2P9P09G_T2plMkX2ajwljH6Eaf2nuw-0EY).

    The SpaceX Boca Chica site is an industrial manufacturing, assembly, and testing as well as a launch and landing site building its own storage tanks, with its own on site power generators and plans to drill for natural gas in nearby lease sites too close to Gulf and South Bay waters and vulnerable protected habitat sites for reliable spill containment measures. At the least, it should qualify for LEED certification at the Platinum before it’s allowed to expand its operations any further (https://www.usgbc.org/help/what-leed).

    Check out how a NASA Rocket Assembly facility pollution problem surfaced in 1996 with the failure of a industrial solvent storage tank that let to the discovery of deeper pollution problems that have proven impossible to clean up despite year and millions of dollars of effort, and has just now become public: “”NASA spent millions over decades trying to clean toxic waste at Michoud site. It’s still there.,” Mark Schleifstein, 04-09-2021, The Times Picayune, https://www.nola.com/news/environment/article_6cfeef1a-90bc-11eb-a158-4fdb371e078a.html.

    The local Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club is one of the primary local groups opposing SpaceX Boca Chica’s expanding operations and permits allow for further operation expansions there. Also check out how national Sierra Club was apparently compromised by Musk in 2018: “Elon Musk asked Sierra Club to publicize his donations to stem criticism: report,” Emily Birnbaum, 07-18-2018, The Hill, https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/397903-elon-musk-asked-environmental-group-to-publicize-his-anonymous

    Note that when Musk learned SN11 had come apart he immediately tweeted that he was donating $10 million to Brownsville TX and $20 million to Cameron County school systems out of the blue with no details. He also tweeted an invitation for people to move to the Brownsville area to apply for all the job openings SpaceX would have here.

    For more information about the concerns Congress and the FAA have about SpaceX projects in general and at Boca Chica, see “Congress raises concerns about FAA’s handling of Starship launch license violation,” Jeff Foust, 07-29-2021, https://spacenews.com/congress-raises-concerns-about-faas-handling-of-starship-launch-license-violation/

    And “U.S. House panel probes SpaceX launch activities,” David Shepardsonm, 03-29-2021, Metro, https://www.metro.us/u-s-house-panel-probes-2/

    And “For Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starship program, more smoke, fire and shrapnel,” Christian Davenport , 03-30-2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/03/30/elon-musk-spacex-starship-sn11/

    And “Elon vs. the FAA: Space Business, April 2021,” Tim Fernholtz, 04-01-2021, QUARTZ, Elon vs. the FAA: Space Business, April 2021, https://qz.com/emails/space-business/1991303/

    Gaige does a good job here putting things together and getting the word out that SpaceX Boca Chica may be less certain and less a good thing than lots of folks realize.

    Who else has pieces of information they can add to this larger picture? Who can help put the pieces together into a larger story? Who can help publicize that larger story?

    John Young, MS (Psychology), MSW (Social Work), Retired
    Active member of SAVE RGV from LNG since May 2014 (SAVE RGV from LNG | Facebook)
    San Benito TX

    • Keith Schaedel on April 13, 2021 at 7:44 am
    • Reply

    Leave Space-X alone. This is another example of government authoritaianism for the sake of power.
    I’m pro Space-X and and I know this company is a very good company as it relates to its employees, technological aspirations and achievements, and of course, its respect for the environment.
    I also appreciate and welcome Space-X for the jobs it provides for local residence.

    More importantly, where’s our 2nd bridge access to South Padre Island? It’s been about 20 years that it was decided that one was needed.

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