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

The United States Army Corps of Engineers has closed a permit application for a proposed expansion of SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. † In a letter viewed 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 force wanted more details about the mitigating measures the company would take to limit the loss of water and wetlands around the site.

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

As SpaceX continues to expand its infrastructure in Boca Chica, the company periodically changes an existing permit it holds with the Army Corps of Engineers, ensuring construction plans do not violate the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act. Dec 2020, SpaceX suggested changing its existing license for an expansion that would include “the addition of test, orbital and landing platforms, integration towers, associated infrastructure, stormwater management functions and vehicle parking”, according to a public announcement about the changes the Corps posted in March. SpaceX also included a rough map of its planswhich involved building two orbital launch pads, two sub-orbital launch pads, a new landing pad, and other major infrastructure changes.

Such changes require SpaceX to backfill into existing flats and wetlands. The public notice claimed that SpaceX’s proposed changes would affect “10.94 acres of mud flats, 5.94 acres of estuarine wetlands, and 0.28 acres of non-tidal areas.” The force also said SpaceX was working on “a comprehensive, multifaceted mitigation strategy” for the launch site, as well as taking certain avoidance measures to minimize impact on wetlands, such as placing the proposed parking lot in an “upland area to avoid wetland effects.” The public was asked to comment on the proposed changes during a comment period ending April 20, 2021. Various activist groups, like the Sierra Club and the local non-profit Red RGVurged the public to petition the Corps to deny the permit change.


Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

When the comment period ended, the Corps sent a letter to SpaceX on May 21, 2021, detailing the comments, including responses from the EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Corps itself and Texas environmental protection organizations. SpaceX was asked to respond to the comments and submit several documents, such as a mitigation plan to prevent impacts on wetlands and offset the loss of aquatic resources, an alternative construction plan that would serve the same purpose but less impact on the area would have , and more.

Although SpaceX provided its response to comments and an analysis on alternative infrastructure in October, the company has not provided its mitigation plan and other required responses, according to a letter the force sent to SpaceX on March 7. The force determined that SpaceX’s plan for alternatives “was sufficiently detailed.” Part of the problem also revolved around SpaceX’s requirement of No Action Alternative. Essentially, SpaceX is to provide the Corps with an alternative plan for its proposed activity, one that would accomplish the same goals the company hopes to achieve, but without impacting wetlands.

The letter cited confusion over SpaceX’s No Action Alternative given conflicting statements the company has made publicly and in response to the Corps. Specifically, in its October analysis of alternatives, SpaceX eliminated the ability to launch Starship from Cape Canaveral, Florida — the company’s primary launch site for flying the Falcon 9 according to the Corps. But in February, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, during a public broadcast that the company would moving to Cape Canaveral to launch Starship if SpaceX failed to get certain regulatory approval. The Corps noted that moving to Cape Canaveral seemingly works as a no-action alternative. If SpaceX were to take that possibility seriously, it would require a much more rigorous analysis, according to the Corps.

As a result of this incomplete information and confusion, the Corps informed SpaceX in its new letter that the license application has been withdrawn. But while SpaceX’s license is closed for now, it looks like it could easily reopen.

“As of March 7, 2022, the SWG Regulatory Office has ‘closed’ the application process because Space Exploration Technologies has not provided the information requested as described in the letter,” Lynda Yezzi, chief of public affairs for the Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District (SWG), wrote in an email to: The edge† “Without the requested information, the permitting process cannot proceed. Once the requested information is received, SWG will restart the permit application process.” Yezzi clarified that SpaceX’s existing license, approved in September 2014, “continues to comply with all applicable laws and regulations and remains in effect.”

It’s not exactly clear why SpaceX hasn’t provided the necessary information or whether the company plans to send what the Corps requested. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

While SpaceX is due to undergo a federal assessment with the Corps, it is also in the midst of a lengthy environmental assessment with the Federal Aviation Administration, which determines whether the company should be licensed to launch Starship into orbit from Boca Chica. In September, the FAA Released Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment detailing the ways SpaceX’s elaborate plans for Starbase would affect the area. (In those plans, SpaceX does not mention the possibility of launching from Cape Canaveral as a no-action alternative.) The FAA has consistently delayed its decision on how to proceed with Starbase, as the agency consults with several other government agencies about the project. The last deadline for a decision is now the end of April.

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

Read the Corps’ letter to SpaceX below:


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