Boca Chica, a finger of mostly undeveloped land in south Texas between the Brownsville Ship Channel and a part of the Rio Grande forming the riverine U.S.-Mexico border, is a haven for many endangered and threatened animals. The creatures include the leatherback, loggerhead, hawksbill, green and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, as well as birds like the piping plover, red knot, and northern aplomado falcon. It is also the habitat of two rare cats, the Gulf Coast jaguarundi and ocelot.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration recently gave the private company SpaceX approval to apply for licenses to build a launch facility on Boca Chica. In its Record of Decision, the agency stated that the proposed facility “may affect, is likely to adversely affect” all of these species. Although SpaceX has won praise from some wildlife managers for its plans to minimize negative effects, the launch facility is a worry for conservationists such as Carole Allen of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, particularly about the Kemp’s ridley turtle, which nests primarily in Texas and northern Mexico and nearly went extinct in the 1970s.
Thanks to decades of conservation work, the number of nesting ridleys increased 12 to 17 percent per year in the first decade of this century, but it decreased by 25 percent in 2013 and 45 percent in 2014 compared with 2009. The decline may be partly due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill–data remain confidential as part of the damage assessment process until court cases are settled–as well as shrimp trawling without protective devices, and unusually high and low freshwater inflows into the Gulf of Mexico.
Rockets are a new worry. Space-related activities and wildlife can co-exist, and have done so in Florida for 50 years. NASA’s Kennedy Space Center extends over about 7 percent of the 140,000-acre Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and government agencies work closely to minimize effects of space operations on wildlife and habitat and vice versa. The number of loggerhead sea turtles nesting on the refuge has steadily increased in the past few decades, reaching 1,100 in 2014.
In Texas, SpaceX seems to have started off on the right foot. Patrick Burchfield, director of the Gladys Porter Zoo and a key player in recovery efforts for Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, says the company contacted him early in its site selection process to discuss concerns about the facility. “Up to now, they have been very responsible and responsive,” he says. “They have done their homework. Speaking as a biologist, the best thing would be to have nothing out there, but that’s not realistic.”
The Texas picture is complicated by several factors. One is the hodgepodge of ownership of lands around the proposed facility, including Cameron County, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, three tracts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and private holdings, as well as a foreign country mere miles away. Working relationships there will be more complex than the one between Merritt Island and NASA. Another factor is that SpaceX is a private company. Merritt Island manager Sandy Mickey notes that working with another government agency is different from working with a private company. “The two have different missions. Theirs is profit,” she said.
SpaceX has said that it will take a number of measures to protect endangered animals. According to FAA documents, SpaceX consulted with the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the City of Brownsville and the Port of Brownsville to determine mitigation options. The proposals include noise and light management, habitat preservation, detailed monitoring plans, and annual reports to the USFWS.
Without such actions, the Environmental Impact Statement prepared for the Texas facility by the USFWS anticipates that a maximum of 91 nesting sea turtles could be killed or harmed. With proposed measures in place, the toll could be limited to one adult and one nest per year each of loggerhead, green, leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles, and three adult and three nests of Kemp’s–still a significant loss for a species with so few numbers. A single female nests for many years, often producing two or three clutches a season.
Actual construction of the facility will remove approximately 16 acres of upland and 3 acres of wetland habitat, and cut off nearly 3 more acres of wetland from the sea. The environmental impact assessment states that while construction activities may temporarily displace wildlife, “…it is expected that wildlife species would move to suitable habitat in the vicinity and would not be significantly impacted by short-term construction activities.” Construction is, however, expected to take as long as three years, creating the potential to displace at least three sea turtle nesting seasons.
According to a company spokesperson, SpaceX is not commenting on the environmental impact of the Boca Chica facility beyond what is in the Environmental Impact Statement, Record of Decision and the USFWS Biological and Conference Opinion, which include long lists of mitigation approaches developed by the company and the agencies through the review process.
The FAA decision only clears the way for SpaceX to apply for licenses to construct the facility and launch its vehicles. Those applications will have to meet requirements for ensuring environmental protection consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as criteria for public safety, insurance coverage, and national security, according to Hank Price in the FAA Office of Communications.
Once licenses are issued, the FAA is responsible for verifying that the proposed mitigations measures are in place and “as appropriate” may enter into an agreement with SpaceX for annual inspections. That lack of more formal oversight concerns Allen of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, and groups such as the Sierra Club have also stressed the need to ensure the company delivers on its promises. Burchfield notes that the facility’s proximity to three wildlife refuge tracts means “a lot of eyes” on its operations. The leader on the SpaceX project for the Lower Rio Grande Valley refuge, Robert Jess, notes that there will be refuge staff dedicated to monitoring activities and impacts from the space port.
Burchfield reports that Space X recently approached him about conducting before and after studies on the site. “They are already demonstrating a high level of stewardship and responsibility. This is the least intrusive thing that could go on out there and, in the long term, it may serve wildlife by restricting other development. I hope that I’m not proven wrong, but I don’t think I will be.”