Space port won’t harm wildlife if precautions taken

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — A proposed rocket site in South Texas won’t significantly disrupt endangered species if officials take precautions such as avoiding launches during times the animals are most active, according to a federal study. The draft environmental impact statement released Monday by the Federal Aviation Administration is an important factor in California-based SpaceX’s pursuit of the site near where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The final report is a necessary precursor to the FAA issuing licenses allowing SpaceX to launch rockets there, but not a guarantee they will issue them. A public meeting to take input on the draft report is scheduled for May 7 in Brownsville. The site is less than three miles from the U.S.-Mexico border and is bordered on three sides by state park land that’s managed by the federal government as part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. It’s just a short sandy walk to Boca Chica Beach. SpaceX, run by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, currently launches most of its rockets from Florida’s Cape Canaveral, but it’s looking for additional launch capacity. Gilbert Salinas, vice president for the Brownsville Economic Development Council, which has been courting the project, said he “anticipated some very good, positive feedback with some small risks to the project that could be mitigated.” The report acknowledged the project likely will “adversely affect” some endangered species, including the piping plover, northern aplomado falcon, jaguarundi, ocelot, and sea turtles. But it lists several steps SpaceX could take to lessen those damages. Among them are conducting pre- and post-launch surveys for the birds and avoiding launches at dusk and dawn, the most active times for the cats. It also suggests avoiding night launches during turtle nesting season. The report said development for the launch site would occur within 20 acres of the 56-acre site. “It’s important to note that SpaceX is very experienced in ensuring that our sites have a minimal environmental impact,” said Christina Ra, SpaceX’s Director of Communications, in an email last month. “Almost all launch sites (including SpaceX’s launch sites at Vandenberg Air Force Base and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station) are on environmental preserves or habitats. This provides general isolation for both the launch site and the preserve.” Salinas repeated the common comparison to NASA’s Florida launch facility at Cape Canaveral, where rockets and wildlife have coexisted for decades. Cape Canaveral is overlaid with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. But there are significant differences. The Florida refuge encompasses 140,000 acres. The Texas refuge is a mostly narrow string of more than 100 separate tracts that have been pieced together to create a wildlife corridor along the final 275 miles of the Rio Grande. There are about 5,700 refuge acres within three miles of the launch site. “Probably the biggest thing that all refugees are fighting is habitat loss and fragmentation,” said Robert Jess, a project leader for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who oversees the refuge. “Boca Chica is an anchor point of a wildlife corridor that extends into the Texas ranchlands to the north and then south into Mexico. It kind of ensures our connectivity and genetic exchange for ocelot populations.” The only environmental group to announce its opposition shortly after the proposal went public was Austin-based Environment Texas. “Just on the face of it we think it’s entirely inappropriate to build a rocket launch pad right in the middle of a national wildlife refuge and state park,” Luke Metzger, the group’s director, said earlier this year. One area that appears certain to be impacted is the small neighborhood of mostly seasonal residents at Boca Chica Village, just up the road from the launch site. The report said it could not estimate the effect on property values, but the project “would change the noise environment, visual viewshed, nighttime light emissions, traffic and numbers of people in the vicinity. These changes would affect how Boca Chica Village residents experience their neighborhood.” One late afternoon in December, Jim Workman, 69, tinkered under the hood of his Ford Bronco in Boca Chica Village. He owns his house there and splits his time between there and Minnesota. “I hate to see it come out here. It’s a nice, peaceful village,” he said. “It’s just going to more or less invade our privacy out here. That’s why we bought out here.”