By Gaige Davila
The Cameron County District Attorney’s (DA) office thinks SpaceX may be breaking the law, after an unexpected detainment at the space company’s Boca Chica facility.
After a complaint by Save RGV, a Rio Grande Valley-based environmental justice group, staff from the DA’s office traveled to Boca Chica to investigate on Wednesday, June 9. Save RGV said SpaceX’s security personnel were closing Remedios Avenue and Joanna Street, both located in Boca Chica Village, at will.
The only road Cameron County and SpaceX are authorized to close is Highway 4, the lone road leading to Boca Chica Village and SpaceX’s facility. SpaceX must notify the county of road closures in advance, according to a memorandum between Cameron County and the Texas General Land Office.
When the DA’s staff turned off Highway 4 onto Remedios Avenue, they were immediately stopped and detained, according to the letter, by Oscar Lopez, a security officer hired by SpaceX wearing a “tactical bulletproof vest.” Lopez told the DA’s staff they could not use the road and had to turn around back down Highway 4.
The DA’s staff told Lopez, his supervisor and the head of SpaceX’s security team, Gunnar Milburn, that they could not close Remedios Avenue, which is a public road. The DA now believes SpaceX and its security team could be charged with obstructing a highway, a misdemeanor charge, and impersonating a public servant, a third degree felony, after the DA discovered neither Lopez or Milburn had Texas security licenses.
“This conduct is unacceptable,” Saenz’s letter reads, alluding to the county telling SpaceX on April 19 of a separate, undescribed incident involving a security guard.
Saenz also noted that Joanna Street had been renamed to Rocket Road, questioning whether SpaceX legally renamed the street.
First reported by the Brownsville Herald, SpaceX has exceeded its allotted 300 closure hours of Highway 4 and Boca Chica Beach, already reaching 385 hours.
“If SpaceX has indeed exceeded the allotted hours, then there is no longer a legal authorization to obstruct Highway 4,” Saenz wrote.
Also in the letter, Saenz asked if SpaceX has a beach mitigation plan when they close Highway 4, and if the closures are given within a 14 days notice. Most notices, according to the PRESS’ analysis of notices issued by Cameron County of Highway 4 closures, are given within a day or a few days before.
Saenz, in closing the letter, said no law enforcement agencies should work for or help SpaceX’s operations at Boca Chica, at least until they respond to the letter.
The DA’s office declined to comment whether SpaceX responded to Saenz’s letter by the Monday deadline or what the DA’s next steps would be.
Shyamal Patel, Director of Starship Operations for SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility, to whom Saenz’s letter is addressed, did not respond to the PRESS’ request for comment. Requests for comment to SpaceX’s communications department also went unanswered.
Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr, who was sent the letter from the DA’s office, said SpaceX is preparing a response to Saenz’s letter and has been communicating with the DA’s office since this past Monday.
“What I think we’ve got to make sure is that we’re all talking apples and oranges,” Treviño told the PRESS in a phone call. “If the county has authorized a road closure, or beach closure, for any particular reason, like transporting the (rocket), testing of the Starship, then that’s one aspect.
“If what’s occurring is that when the county is not authorized or ordered a road closure or beach closure that SpaceX is denying access to public roads, then we’ve got to figure that out, and I think that’s where the DA’s office is coming from because that’s not authorized.”
SpaceX’s security acting as law enforcement concerned him and said it was unacceptable and hopes the DA and SpaceX address and resolve the issues at the Boca Chica facility. Treviño also said if the DA’s office wanted to file charges against SpaceX, he would support it.
“I can understand the presence of additional private security,” Treviño said, noting increasing activity at SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility. “But there’s got to be a clear understanding and delineation between private security for the premises and operations of SpaceX and law enforcement activities.”
The DA’s letter is the latest in a series of issues residents and agencies across the country have with SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility.
The Verge recently reported that SpaceX launched their SN8 rocket this past December while ignoring warnings from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that they were violating their launch permits minutes before the launch, possibly endangering nearby homes at Boca Chica Village. SpaceX’s expansion plans at Boca Chica Beach have been criticized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, saying they would “adversely affect” the environment if completed.
Treviño said SpaceX is expected to respond to the DA’s letter within a couple days.
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