Environmentalists sue Texas Land Office, Cameron County over SpaceX beach closures

Seeking to end frequent beach closures to allow testing by Elon Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX, a South Texas environmental group has filed a lawsuit in Cameron County, saying the practice violates the constitution of the state.

Save RGV alleges in the complaint filed on Monday that authorities’ repeated closure of Boca Chica beach for testing and rocket launches violates their constitutionally guaranteed right to access public beaches.

The lawsuit, which says the beach has been closed to host SpaceX for up to 450 hours a year since 2019, names the Texas General Land Office, Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Cameron County as accused.

He says the land is part of a wildlife refuge in Cameron County and is intended to prevent future closures of the land, as well as Texas Highway 4 – the only road that leads to the beach.

“It’s not rocket science,” Save RGV board member Jim Chapman said in a statement to Reuters. “The Texas Constitution is crystal clear. In Texas, access to public beaches cannot be restricted.

The lawsuit targets the 2013 amendments to the Texas Open Beaches Act that allow counties to close public beaches along the Gulf Coast “for space flight activities.”

Save RGV claims that the law as amended violates provisions of the constitution that guarantee an unlimited right to access public beaches in the state.

The group is seeking a court declaration that sections of the Texas Open Beaches Act restricting their access to Boca Chica beach are unconstitutional. He is also asking for a declaration that an agreement allowing the beach to be closed is invalid.

Neither the Land Office nor Cameron County responded to requests for comment.

FAA seeks comment

The Federal Aviation Administration said last month it would extend the period for the public to submit comments on a draft report examining the environmental impacts of the proposed SpaceX Starship / Super Heavy rocket program at Boca Chica.

In August, “60 Minutes” reported obtaining government documents showing that SpaceX disrupted public access to the beach for “more than 1,000 hours in 2019,” violating its FAA permit, which did not allow the closure of areas only 300 hours per year.

SpaceX closures have heightened tensions with residents who say the company is running tests, which are forcing some residents to evacuate their homes, with little warning. Environmentalists have also expressed concerns about damage to sensitive areas around the launch site.

SpaceX’s launch facility is surrounded by more than 20,000 acres of federally protected land, stretching west along the Rio Grande and north to South Padre Island.

Stephanie Bilodeau, a coastal bird biologist known to SpaceX security as the “Lady of the Birds,” searches for plover nests on mudflats near the Superheavy Starship orbital launch pad being built by SpaceX on Thursday the 17th. June 2021, at Boca Chica State Park near Brownsville.

Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

Boca Chica is an important stopover on the Central Flyway bird migration route, stretching over 8,000 miles from the Canadian Arctic to lower South America. Hundreds of species of birds stop here to rest after ascending the Mexican coast or crossing the Gulf of Mexico, like Texans pull up in a Buc-ee’s in the middle of a long drive.

Musk, who also co-founded electric vehicle maker Tesla, is trying to integrate Boca Chica and the surrounding area as a town in Starbase, Texas. He announced SpaceX’s plan on Twitter on March 2: “Create the city of Starbase, Texas” and “From there to Mars, and therefore to the stars”.

Part of SpaceX’s appeal was the isolation of the area, giving it a freedom of action it wouldn’t have at a busy launch site like NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, said Eric Berger. , spatial editor of the Ars Technica technology website.

“They are moving so fast it’s beyond comprehension,” he said of SpaceX’s activity in South Texas.

Activists in the Rio Grande Valley were “asleep at the switch” when SpaceX revealed its plans for Boca Chica in 2012, said Jim Chapman, president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a nonprofit that works to protect the fauna in the Rio Grande valley.

“We didn’t appreciate the impact,” he said earlier this year. “I think we totally underestimated them.”

This story includes information from reporter Brandon Lingle, contributor Richard Webner, and the Express-News wire services.

Gregory M. Roy