SpaceX says, sure, Starship blew up but you can forget about the rest of that lawsuit

Won't someone think of the (checks notes) Kemp's Ridley sea turtle?

SpaceX has hit back at a lawsuit brought by the American Bird Conservancy and others regarding risks to the environment near its Starship testing facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

While the Musk-owned rocket company admits its attempted orbital launch of Starship in April ended with a fireball, falling debris, noise, dust, and launchpad pieces flung hither and thither, that's just about all it copped to in its response [PDF] filed in a Washington DC district court.

"SpaceX," it wrote, "admits that on April 20, 2023, it conducted a test launch of Starship/SuperHeavy in accordance with the license issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and that the launch vehicle successfully lifted off and flew for several minutes before experiencing anomalies that resulted in the termination of the mission and safe destruction of the launch vehicle over the Gulf of Mexico.

"SpaceX admits that the concrete launch pad deck was damaged during the liftoff, spreading some debris and dust."

But while admitting it did launch the giant rocket, and agreeing to the fact that SpaceX's Texas launch facility is among a bunch of wildlife refuges and protected natural areas, "SpaceX denies every allegation of plaintiffs' complaint."

The lawsuit was filed in May by a group of environmental non-profits and an indigenous nation with ties to the Boca Chica area. It accused the FAA – not SpaceX – of violating America's National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by allowing Musk and company to perform their own programmatic environmental assessment (PEA), not a full environmental impact study as required by the NEPA.

As a result, several protected species, including the critically endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtle and the near-threatened piping plover, are having their habitats disturbed by Starship, the largest rocket ever launched, the lawsuit claims.

SpaceX, for its part, denies that the FAA deferred to its in-house environmental study despite the fact that the PEA itself [PDF] says as much, using nearly the exact same language as the lawsuit.

And then the denials get really weird

SpaceX is right to deny many of the allegations – they hinge on facts that environmentalists will seemingly have to prove in court if the case makes it that far – and much of the response to the lawsuit from SpaceX is simply creative restatements of it "denies the allegations." 

There are a few claims in the response that are, frankly, a bit mind-boggling in their incongruence to easily established facts, however.

Like, for example, that SpaceX denies claims that its activities at its Boca Chica launch site "restrict the ability of the public to access and enjoy the Texas coastline adjacent to the project site," at least "to the extent that the alleged effects differ from the effects" mentioned in the PEA. 

However, the launch caused brush fires that burned three acres of land, while property damages and "terrifying" sounds were reported in Port Isabel – six miles from the launch site and outside the restriction area – as was a rain of particulates from the launch.

Beaches not closed as part of the Cameron County government's closure order for the Starship orbital attempt in April also later reported debris.

Whether required shutdowns of public spaces don't exceed what SpaceX said they would then, isn't so clear.

Even more strange is SpaceX's statement that it "denies that the only way to access Boca Chica Beach is Texas State Highway 4." A brief look at a map of the area makes it pretty clear there's only one road in and out of Boca Chica Beach, and a call to the Cameron County judge's office confirmed that fact.

"Texas highway 4 is the only route to the beach, which is why the county has the authority to close both the highway and beach" when SpaceX is using the area, a spokesperson for the judge's office, which issues closure orders, told us.

SpaceX also denied that there was any risk from keeping its farm of fuel and propellant tanks so close to its launch site despite visible damage to the tanks after Starship's April launch and concerns that climate change is putting the Texas coast at greater risk from hurricane effects.

All said, SpaceX (and the FAA, which filed a similar [PDF] blanket denial of the allegations) argues the plaintiffs don't have any standing. Therefore, the case should be dismissed with prejudice, and SpaceX should be granted "other relief as may be appropriate."

We asked SpaceX to explain the situation, but haven't heard back. Regardless, Starship probably won't be taking to the skies again anytime soon despite Musk's claims last month that it would be ready to launch in six to eight weeks, meaning it'd be flying again as soon as July 24.

The FAA still hasn't cleared Starship for operations again after its April snafu. We've contacted the agency to learn when it may return Starship to operation. ®

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