Army Corps of Engineers Closes SpaceX Starbase Permit Application Citing Missing Information

The US Army Corps of Engineers has completed a permit application for a proposed expansion of SpaceX’s starbase in Boca Chica, Texas — a potential snag in the company’s plans to add new launch and landing sites to the area as well as significantly expand the site. Viewed in a letter by The edgeThe Corps cited SpaceX’s failure to provide requested follow-up information about the proposed changes as the reason for closing the permit. Among other things, the Corps wanted more details on what mitigation measures the company would take to limit the loss of water and wetlands around the site.

SpaceX first purchased land in Boca Chica, Texas in 2012 with the intention of building a facility to launch its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. But the company has expanded its plans significantly in recent years, creating a massive new site called Starbase to build and test launch prototypes of its next-generation rocket called Starship — designed to eventually launch people and cargo into space.

As SpaceX continues to build out its infrastructure in Boca Chica, the company regularly amends an existing permit it holds with the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure construction plans comply with the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act. In December 2020, SpaceX proposed to change its existing permit for an expansion that, according to a public announcement, would include “the addition of test sites, orbital and landing sites, integration towers, associated infrastructure, stormwater management capabilities, and vehicle parking” changes approved by the Corps in the were published in March. SpaceX also included a rough map showing its plans, which included building two orbital launch pads, two suborbital launch pads, a new landing pad, and other major infrastructure changes.

Such changes would require SpaceX to infill material into existing housing and wetlands. The public notice claimed that SpaceX’s proposed changes would affect “10.94 acres of tidal flats, 5.94 acres of estuarine wetlands, and 0.28 acres of non-tidal wetlands.” The Corps also said SpaceX is working on a “comprehensive, multi-faceted mitigation strategy” for the launch site and is taking specific mitigation actions to minimize impacts on water areas, such as: B. the planned parking lot in a “highland area to avoid”. Impacts on wetlands.” The public was invited to comment on the proposed changes during a comment period that ended on April 20, 2021. Various activist groups, such as the Sierra Club and local nonprofit Save RGV, have urged the public to petition the Corps to oppose the permit change.

Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

After the comment deadline, the Corps sent a letter to SpaceX on May 21, 2021, outlining the comments, which included responses from the EPA, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Corps itself, and Texas environmental organizations. SpaceX has been asked to address the comments and submit various documents such as: B. a mitigation plan to avoid impacts on wetlands and compensate for the loss of aquatic resources, a plan for alternative constructions that would serve the same purpose but have less impact on the site, and more.

While SpaceX provided its response to comments and analysis on alternative infrastructure in October, the company did not provide its mitigation plan and other required responses, according to a March 7 letter from the Corps to SpaceX. The Corps noted that SpaceX’s plan for alternatives “lacked sufficient detail.” Part of the issue also revolved around the no-action alternative required by SpaceX. Essentially, SpaceX must present the Corps with an alternative plan for its proposed activity that would achieve the same goals the company hopes to achieve, but without impacting wetlands.

The letter cites confusion about SpaceX’s No Action Alternative given conflicting statements the company has made publicly and in response to the Corps. Notably, in its October analysis of alternatives, SpaceX ruled out the possibility of launching Starship from Cape Canaveral, Fla. — the company’s primary launch site for Falcon 9 flight, according to the Corps. But in February, during a public broadcast, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk mentioned that the company want Moving to Cape Canaveral to launch Starship if SpaceX has not received specific regulatory approval. The Corps found that moving to Cape Canaveral appears to work as a no-action alternative. If SpaceX was serious about that possibility, Corps said it would require a much more rigorous analysis.

Because of this incomplete information and confusion, the Corps told SpaceX in the new letter that its permit application has been withdrawn. But while SpaceX’s permit is closed for now, it seems like it could easily reopen.

“On March 7, 2022, the SWG Regulatory Office ‘closed’ the application process because Space Exploration Technologies failed to provide the requested information as described in the letter,” Lynda Yezzi, Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District (SWG) director of public affairs. , wrote in an email to The edge. “Without the requested information, the approval process cannot proceed. Once the requested information is received, SWG will re-initiate the permitting process.” Yetzzi clarified that SpaceX’s existing permit, approved in September 2014, “still complies with all applicable laws and regulations and remains in effect.”

It’s unclear why SpaceX hasn’t provided the required information, or if the company plans to broadcast what the Corps requested. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

While SpaceX is subject to a federal review by the Corps, it is also in the midst of a lengthy environmental review by the Federal Aviation Administration, which will decide whether the company should be licensed to launch Starship into orbit from Boca Chica. In September, the FAA released a draft programmatic environmental impact assessment detailing how SpaceX’s expanded plans for Starbase would affect the area. (In these plans, SpaceX does not list the possibility of a Cape Canaveral launch as a no-action alternative.) The FAA has consistently delayed its decision on how to proceed with Starbase as the agency is in discussions with various other government entities about the advised on the project. The latest deadline for a decision is now the end of April.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has begun ramping up construction of the Starship launch infrastructure at Cape Canaveral. The move is seen as a possible sign that SpaceX will eventually move operations of the vehicle to Florida if the FAA’s decision doesn’t go in SpaceX’s direction.

Read the Corps letter to SpaceX below:

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