Army Corps of Engineers closes SpaceX Starbase permit application citing lack of information

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This week, the US Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit application for a proposed expansion of SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Bocachica, Texas. This could put the company’s plans to expand the facility by adding new launch and landing pads, as well as substantially expanding the site, at risk of being stymied. The Corps cited SpaceX’s inability to deliver required follow-up information regarding the planned improvements as a cause for terminating the permit in a letter obtained by The Verge.

The Corps, among other things, sought to know more about the mitigation measures that the corporation planned to use to reduce the loss of water and wetlands in the area around the site. SpaceX bought property near Boca Chica, Texas, in 2012 with the purpose of developing a launch site for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. The company has now completed the construction of the complex. Nonetheless, in recent years, the company has significantly increased its plans, including the construction of a massive new facility called Starbase, which will be used to build and test launch prototypes of its next-generation rocket, the Starship, which will eventually be used to transport people and cargo into deep space.

As SpaceX continues to expand its infrastructure in Boca Chica, the company must amend an existing permit it has with the Army Corps of Engineers on a regular basis to ensure that the company’s construction plans do not violate the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act, which are both federal laws that must be followed. According to a public notice about the changes posted by the Corps in March, SpaceX proposed to modify its existing permit in December 2020 to allow for an expansion that would include “the addition of test, orbital, and landing pads, integration towers, associated infrastructure, stormwater management features, and vehicle parking.”

It also presented what seemed to be a rudimentary map of its proposed plans, which included the construction of two orbital launchpads and two suborbital launchpads as well as the construction of a new landing pad and other substantial infrastructure upgrades. As a result of these modifications, SpaceX would be required to backfill material into existing flats and marshes. According to the public notice, SpaceX’s planned improvements will have an impact on “10.94 acres of mudflats, 5.94 acres of estuary wetlands, and 0.28 acres of nontidal wetlands,” among other things.

As well as developing “a comprehensive, complex mitigation approach” for the launch site, the Corps said that SpaceX was taking specific avoidance efforts to reduce damage to water regions, such as locating the company’s planned parking lot in an “upland location to prevent wetland impacts.” Public feedback on the proposed amendments was sought during a consultation period that closed on April 20th, 2021, and was open to all members of the general public. Different activist organizations, including the Sierra Club as well as the local non-profit Save RGV, encouraged the public to contact the Corps of Engineers and ask them to oppose the permission change.

After the comment period closed on May 21st, 2021, the Corps submitted a letter to SpaceX describing the comments received, which included answers from the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Corps itself, and environmental protection groups in Texas. Among other things, SpaceX was asked to respond to the comments and submit a variety of documents, including an impact mitigation plan for avoiding impacts to wetlands and offsetting the loss of aquatic resources, a plan for alternative construction that would accomplish the same goal while causing less impact on the surrounding area, and more.

According to a letter issued by the Corps to SpaceX on March 7th, although the firm did offer its answer to concerns as well as a study of alternative infrastructure in October, the company did not disclose its mitigation plan or any other necessary replies. “Insufficient specificity” was found in SpaceX’s strategy for alternate energy sources, according to the Corps. In addition, SpaceX’s mandatory No Action Alternative was a contributing factor to the issue. Essentially, SpaceX must submit to the Corps an alternative plan for its planned activity, one that would accomplish the same objectives that the business expects to achieve but would not have an adverse effect on any wetlands. This plan must be approved by the Corps before the proposed activity can proceed.

SpaceX’s No Action Alternative was noted as a source of uncertainty in the letter, owing to the company’s contradictory public pronouncements and responses to the Corps of Engineers. Indeed, in its October examination of potential launch sites, SpaceX rejected the prospect of launching Starship from Cape Canaveral, Florida, which is the company’s principal launch site for the Falcon 9, according to the Corps of Engineers and the Department of Defense. However, in February, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said during a public broadcast that the business would relocate to Cape Canaveral to launch Starship if the company did not acquire specific regulatory approvals before the launch. The Corps of Engineers observed that relocating to Cape Canaveral seems to function as a No Action Alternative. According to the Corps, if SpaceX was serious about exploring that prospect, it would need to conduct a considerably more thorough investigation.

This insufficient information and uncertainty led to the Corps notifying SpaceX in a fresh letter that their permit application had been withdrawn. However, although SpaceX’s authorization seems to have been revoked, for the time being, it appears to be readily reactivated.

In an email to The Verge, Lynda Yezzi, chief of public affairs for the Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District (SWG), stated that the application process had been “closed” as of March 7, 2022, because Space Exploration Technologies had not provided the requested information as outlined in the letter. “As of March 7, 2022, the SWG Regulatory Office has declared the application process ‘closed.'” “The permission procedure will not be able to proceed until the necessary information is provided. “Once SWG receives the needed information, the permit application procedure will be re-started.” Yezzi highlighted that SpaceX’s current permission, which was authorized in September 2014, “remains in full compliance with all relevant rules and regulations and continues to be in full force.”

It’s unclear precisely why SpaceX failed to give the needed information, or if the business intends to transmit the information the Corps asked for in the future. A request for comment from SpaceX did not get a response in time for publication.

Even while SpaceX must go through a federal assessment with the Corps, it’s also going through a long environmental evaluation with the Federal Aviation Administration, which is deciding whether or not to grant the business a license to launch the Starship into orbit from Boca Chica.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) submitted a draught programmatic environmental assessment in September, which detailed the ways in which SpaceX’s increased plans for Starbase will harm the surrounding region. (As a No Action Alternative, SpaceX did not include the potential of launching from Cape Canaveral in their plans.) When it comes to Starbase, the FAA has continuously put off making a judgment until after consulting with a variety of other government bodies regarding the project. The earliest a decision may be made is currently at the end of the month of April. During this period, SpaceX has begun ramping up the building of the Starship launch infrastructure at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The action is being seen as a potential indication that SpaceX would ultimately relocate its vehicle operations to Florida if the FAA does not rule in SpaceX’s favor.

Source: The Verge

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