Conservation groups are suing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US for failing to mitigate the environmental harms resulting from the SpaceX Starship launch last month.
The 120m-tall spacecraft lifted off from South Texas on 20 April on the back of SpaceX’s new Super Heavy rocket. But just minutes after the launch, the two sections of the rocket failed to detach, causing Starship to begin spinning at altitude before exploding about four minutes after leaving the ground.
The launch site sits next to prime habitat for protected species and migratory birds, like the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and the piping plover. The launch showered the surrounding area with particulate matter that could have a detrimental impact on the wildlife.
The FAA has already permitted SpaceX to launch 20 Super Heavy rockets each year for the next five years.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which aims to protect natural habitats under threat, the FAA decided to forego a full environmental review despite acknowledging the harm from SpaceX construction and launch activities.
It claimed the damages would not be “significant” due to proposed mitigation measures.
In a lawsuit, CBD argues that the proposed mitigation by the agency isn’t enough to prevent the launch program from causing significant environmental harm. It added that the FAA hasn’t explained how mitigation would address and prevent rocket explosions and fires that could wipe out neighbouring habitat. The suit calls for a full environmental analysis of the nearby species that may be under threat from the launches.
“It’s vital that we protect life on Earth even as we look to the stars in this modern era of spaceflight,” said Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at CBD.
“Federal officials should defend vulnerable wildlife and frontline communities, not give a pass to corporate interests that want to use treasured coastal landscapes as a dumping ground for space waste.”
SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site is surrounded by state parks, National Wildlife Refuge lands, and is considered to be an important habitat for various imperilled wildlife.
Rocket launches also cause significant harm through increased vehicle traffic and the intense heat, noise, and light pollution from construction and launch activities. Rocket explosions spread debris across surrounding habitat and have caused brush fires in the past.
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the SpaceX launch ignited a 1.4-hectare brush fire and sent a cloud of pulverised concrete drifting 6.5 miles to the north-west and raining down over tidal flats and the nearby town of Port Isabel.
An FAA spokesperson said the agency, as a matter of policy, does not comment on active litigation. There was no immediate word on the case from SpaceX.
Mike Parr, president of American Bird Conservancy, said: “Overall, we’ve lost nearly three billion birds from the United States and Canada since 1970. At what point do we say ‘Space exploration is great, but we need to save habitats here on Earth as a top priority’? For the sake of future generations, let’s protect the healthy habitats we have left instead of treating them as wasteplaces for pollution and fuselage.”
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