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Disgruntled neighbors and dwindling shorebirds jeopardize SpaceX expansion

Explosions, noise and beach closings have disrupted the peace and harmed wildlife in Boca Chica, Texas, residents and environmentalists say.
Image: Workers put the finishing touches on a prototype of a spaceship called Starship before SpaceX CEO Elon Musk arrives to update the progress on the project on Sept. 27, 2019.
Workers put the finishing touches on a prototype of a spaceship called Starship before SpaceX CEO Elon Musk arrives to update the progress on the project Sept. 27, 2019, at the Boca Chica spaceport launch facility.Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Celia Johnson, a retired social worker in her mid-70s, can still vividly describe childhood trips to the slender, sandy beach in Boca Chica Village, Texas. There she and her family spent their days running into crashing waves and collecting shells while feasting on sandwiches and watermelon.

“My dad couldn’t afford to take us to the movies,” Johnson said. “That was our entertainment.”

Thirty years ago, Johnson made sure to pass that dream on to her children by buying a three-bedroom brick ranch for her to retire there. Then she bought a second ranch house nearby to rent out to support her in retirement. For years, she spent her winters in Boca Chica, mainly driving from Michigan to escape the cold and welcome the ocean air that brought relief to her asthma. 

Image: Celia Johnson.
Celia Johnson, a retired social worker in her mid-70s, right, spent her winters in Boca Chica.Courtesy Celia Johnson

“It was so peaceful, and at night it was so dark you could see a billion stars,” she said. “You are surrounded by nothing but nature. The beach was pristine and there were tons of different species of birds.”

But the idyll was disrupted when SpaceX, the aerospace company, came to town in 2014 to build a commercial spaceport. The company’s presence, while welcomed by local politicians lured by the promise of taxable income and employment opportunities, has become a nightmare for many residents and wildlife conservationists attempting to protect the sensitive habitat surrounding the development. 

Since SpaceX started construction in late 2015 and testing rockets in 2019, explosions have showered debris across previously unspoiled tidal flats and blown out residents’ windows, including Johnson’s. Rare species of birds like the piping plover and mammals have dwindled, and intense periods of construction and testing have closed off public access to the beach for more days than were authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has federal oversight of the development. The company has also installed bright floodlights to illuminate the road and construction site. 

“You can’t see the stars anymore,” Johnson said. 

Now, the FAA is reviewing SpaceX’s plans to significantly expand the spaceport to allow for launches of the largest rocket known to man, an expansion that has alarmed many residents, environmentalists and wildlife conservationists. 

Image: SpaceX facilities near Boca Chica Village in Brownsville, Texas on Dec. 5, 2021.
SpaceX facilities in Boca Chica Village, Texas, on Sunday. Verónica G. Cárdenas for NBC News

SpaceX declined to respond to a detailed list of questions and allegations that it is lowballing homeowners and harming the environment, stating that the company did not have anyone available. 

“As you can imagine, it’s an incredibly demanding time for the team,” according to an unsigned email from SpaceX’s communications team.

Neither Elon Musk, who founded the company and is its chief executive, nor his chief of staff responded to a request for comment. 

Mushroomed scope

When SpaceX pitched its spaceport, dubbed Starbase, to residents and environmentalists in 2012, the company described a modest facility with a “small, eco-friendly footprint” that would launch a maximum of one rocket per month, according to a SpaceX presentation delivered at the time, seen by NBC News.  

Over time, however, the project has mushroomed to accommodate the development of a new type of launch vehicle, Starship, which at 21 stories tall and with 29 rocket engines will be the largest space vehicle and rocket system known to man. Early this year, Musk announced his desire to turn Starbase and Boca Chica Village into a city with a private spaceport to the moon, Mars and beyond. The accompanying expansion plan, whose environmental impact, outlined in a 150-page draft assessment, is currently being reviewed by the Federal Aviation Authority. It includes the construction of a 250-megawatt power plant -- capable of generating enough power for 100,000 homes -- desalination plant, and liquid natural gas plant. If approved, the expanded Starbase would pave the way for humans to travel to and potentially live on Mars, but would make Boca Chica Village uninhabitable for humans and many animals due to the tenfold increase in the testing of rocket components and launches, and the associated risk of “anomalies” -- a space industry euphemism for explosions.

“We are interested in space exploration like many other people and are not trying to be obstructionist,” said Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy, which has been monitoring the decline of bird species around the spaceport. “But the scope of the project has changed and it feels like a bait and switch.”

SpaceX has bought out many of the villagers, offering them money for their homes that the company said in letters to the owners were three times an independently appraised valuation. But some villagers have said these offers are too low to buy an equivalent property away from the blast zone. Some residents felt pressure to accept SpaceX’s offer, which came with the looming threat of eminent domain. Residents like Celia Johnson and Maria Pointer, whose home now forms part of the SpaceX property, said that threat was communicated verbally by a real estate intermediary representing SpaceX. Eminent domain allows the government -- in this case the county through the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corp. -- to seize their property. 

Cameron County did not respond to a request for comment.

Johnson, whose silvery-gray schnauzer Flash accompanies her everywhere, held out. The offer for her home was $150,000. She said that was insultingly low, based on valuations of inferior properties without ocean views. She would need about three times that much to buy a similar oceanfront property nearby. She had dreamed of leaving the two Boca Chica homes to her sons.

Image: Celia Johnson’s home in Boca Chica Village in Brownsville, Texas on Dec. 5, 2021.
Celia Johnson’s home in Boca Chica Village, Texas. Verónica G. Cárdenas for NBC News

“That dream was destroyed by Elon Musk,” she said, noting that since SpaceX arrived, Cameron County changed its rules around how it handled residents’ utilities. Before, they could stop water deliveries and shut off electricity if they were away during the summer months. Now, however, residents must either pay to maintain utilities even if they are not there -- which Johnson said costs about $150 per month -- or risk being permanently disconnected, as happened with her rental home. Without access to water, owners lose their occupation license, which allows the county to condemn the property. 

Image: Celia Johnson’s rental home in Boca Chica Village in Brownsville, Texas on Dec. 5, 2021.
Celia Johnson’s rental home in Boca Chica Village, Texas.Verónica G. Cárdenas for NBC News

“I worked double jobs and whatever was required so that one day I would have a good retirement,” she said. “Then here comes SpaceX and they take my income away.”

Blame game

Some of SpaceX’s displaced neighbors are more sanguine. Pointer, a retired navigation officer in the Alaska Marine Highway System, said that she and her husband, Ray, decided to make “lemonade out of lemons” after the SpaceX development subsumed their Boca Chica home.

“When they first came to town I kind of welcomed it. I like technology. We loved the Apollo program, the moonwalks and felt like it was going to help Brownsville. We didn’t feel like they were going to impede on us except maybe a bit of noise,” she said. “They never mentioned they’d work 24/7 around the clock and have lights so bright you couldn’t sleep without plywood boards on your windows.”

The disturbance took a toll on the Pointers, who were both suffering from serious health issues. Ray had cancer and Maria was dealing with paralysis on one side of her body due to a latent spinal deformity. Neither could sleep because of the noise and the lights. “We were walking zombies half the time,” she said. 

Maria started documenting the construction of the spaceport and launch vehicles outside her bedroom window, in the early days with her Samsung smartphone camera and in the last few years with a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, posting photos and videos to social media.

“If I’m going to be an independent lens, I’m going to show you what I see,” she said. “If there are birds dying and they are dropping down to the side of me from overpressures, I get to film it. I don’t get to fix it.”

Image: Maria Pointer, who used to own a home with her husband between the SpaceX facilities and Boca Chica Village, poses for a photo in her new home in Port Isabel, Texas on Dec. 5, 2021.
Maria Pointer, who used to own a home with her husband between the SpaceX facilities and Boca Chica Village, in her new home in Port Isabel, Texas, on Sunday.Verónica G. Cárdenas for NBC Universal

In 2019, after Musk gave a presentation to residents about his vision for Starship, Pointer said she and her husband “knew we were toast.”

Pointer said she didn’t like the way SpaceX tried to buy residents out through what she called a “ruthless” third-party real estate firm called JLL. 

“They used very intimidating language on some of these poor folks,” she said, noting that properties in Boca Chica Village should have been appraised based on how much it would cost to buy an equivalent beach-bay home somewhere like South Padre Island. “SpaceX hired the right people because they got some of those old folks so scared that they gave it away for far less than it was worth.”

JLL did not respond to a request for comment.

The Pointers held out, having initially been told their property was worth just $70,000 and being offered $210,000.

Pointer said they eventually sold for “substantially more.” Their Boca Chica home is now part of SpaceX’s production shipyard and has been converted into an office dedicated to hazardous environmental safety. 

But Pointer blames state and county officials, not Musk or SpaceX. 

“You don’t blame a corporation for what governments propose and what greedy commissioners and boards allow,” she said, adding that she’s excited about the prospect of space travel and the technology that enables it. 

“There’s no way you can stand in the way of progress you want to see to bring us to an interplanetary world,” she said. “I hope I get to live long enough to see us back on the moon and on Mars. The idea brings tears to my eyes.”

Economic incentives

When SpaceX was first shopping around for locations for its private commercial spaceport in 2011, it negotiated tax breaks and other sweeteners with local and state officials in Florida, Georgia, Puerto Rico and Texas.

By 2014, Texas won the company’s business and associated promise of jobs and economic development. State and local officials offered Musk’s company about $20 million in financial incentives, including a 10-year county property tax abatement, legal protection from noise complaints and laws altered to close the public beach at Boca Chica during launches, as reported by The Dallas Morning News in 2014.

While the project has brought construction jobs to the Brownsville area, one of the poorest urban areas in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, many community activists question whether it’s bringing sustainable economic development.

“How many of these jobs are long term? Most of the folks are doing contracting work,” said Michelle Serrano, a Brownsville resident and activist. “Is this going to have a sustainable economic impact for our community, or is it more trickle-down economics?”

The SpaceX facilities can be seen from Boca Chica Village, Texas.Verónica G. Cárdenas for NBC News

In a document outlining SpaceX’s environmental and community impacts on the region, submitted to the FAA this year as part of the licensing process, the company states that the proposed development would employ up to 450 full-time workers, many of whom would move to the area from elsewhere, depending on when the expansion is approved. More than a quarter of those in Cameron County, where the spaceport is, live below the poverty threshold, which is more than twice the national average, according to Census Bureau data

The document suggests that the main benefit to the community will come from trickle-down effects from SpaceX workers spending part of their earnings on housing, goods and services in the area. Transient SpaceX workers would also spend money on hotels, food and rental vehicles.

The SpaceX facilities are seen behind Airstreams adjacent to the homes in Boca Chica Village, Texas, on Sunday. Verónica G. Cárdenas for NBC News

“While the population under the poverty threshold may not directly benefit through employment and income, it may indirectly benefit as regional economic health is improved through the proposed increase in employment for commercial space exploration activity,” it states. 

“Even if it does result in some local hires, it doesn’t undo the destruction in the community,” said Bekah Hinojosa, another community activist, pointing to the regular closures of the “poor people’s beach” and the displacement of those living in Boca Chica Village. 

Hinojosa pointed to comments made by Musk in 2018, during a news conference after the launch of SpaceX’s reusable Falcon Heavy vehicle. The billionaire was asked by a reporter how soon flights would be going to the moon or Mars. Musk said that test flights would need to take place first, most likely in Boca Chica, “because we’ve got a load of land with nobody around and so if it blows up, it’s cool,” he said.

The comments grated on some of Boca Chica’s residents, who have dealt with shattered windows and debris strewn across the beach and wildlife refuges after these explosions. 

Hinojosa went further, characterizing Musk’s position as “environmental racism.” Musk has an estimated personal wealth of about $310 billion and is the world’s richest man, according to Bloomberg.

“We’re a poor community and a people of color community,” she said, “But he’s trying to erase us and claim that we’re not there.”

Environmental impact

Musk’s comments also irked conservationists tasked with protecting the wildlife in the surrounding area, one of America’s most biologically diverse coastal wetlands.

“Musk is a very smart man. But he either was ignorant of the ecology out there or he felt his project was so much more important that it really didn’t matter what he did to the area,” said local environmentalist Jim Chapman. 

Chapman said he is alarmed to see rocket tests and launches taking place in such a “fragile and biologically important area,” adding that while tidal flats “are not very exciting to look at to the casual observer,” there’s a “whole web of life out there,” from algae to tiny crustaceans, that a food chain of birds and animals rely upon.    

“This is a very important area for migratory birds as it’s a huge stopover area,” said Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, who submitted comments to the FAA questioning the legality of the SpaceX expansion. “Even a power plant would be concerning. But here you have giant rockets powered by methane that tend to explode, causing debris and noise impact, and we want to make sure the impacts are mitigated.”

While the SpaceX launch site is relatively small, covering about 75 acres, it’s sandwiched between delicate, protected tidal flats, wetlands and a much-loved public beach. Not only does the area provide a habitat for migratory birds, including endangered species such as piping plovers and red knots, it’s also one of the only places where the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, the most critically endangered sea turtle in the world, comes ashore to nest. 

Amid the constant construction noise, truck traffic, enormous floodlights over the site and debris from explosions, some species have already dwindled at an alarming rate, said David Newstead, director of the Coastal Bird Program for the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, a nonprofit group that works to protect the area's bays and estuaries.

Newstead conducted a study of the local population of piping plovers, sparrow-sized shorebirds that nest and feed in coastal sand and are protected under the Endangered Species Act. He found that the population halved from 2018 to 2021, correlating closely with the intensity of SpaceX operations in the area.

In addition to the piping plover, the FAA has identified at least nine other endangered species that would be adversely affected by the SpaceX expansion, including the red knot shorebird, northern aplomado falcon, Gulf Coast jaguarundi (a rare wildcat), ocelot and five types of sea turtle.

There are also plenty of unknown impacts to small mammals, reptiles and the marine worms the shorebirds forage from the sediment because of the reverberations through the land from launches and construction activity, Newstead added.  

When one of the Starship prototypes exploded above the launchpad in March, it threw rocket debris five miles away, to the jetties at the southern tip of South Padre Island, as documented by local news media at the time. That prototype had just three Raptor engines. The Starship that SpaceX hopes to get approval to launch from Boca Chica will have at least 29 of them.

Image: Starship prototypes near Boca Chica Village in Brownsville, Texas on Dec. 5, 2021.
Starship prototypes near Boca Chica Village , Texas, on Sunday. Verónica G. Cárdenas for NBC News

“Nobody has ever put a wildlife preserve in this type of habitat through this type of experiment,” he said. 

Mitigation efforts

Reagan Faught, the regional director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, whose land is adjacent to the SpaceX development, said that his agency has worked closely with SpaceX to improve scheduling and communication around the closing of the state highway and access to the public beach. In September, the agency signed a memorandum of agreement with SpaceX committing to develop protocols to respond to events such as rocket “anomalies," including outlining efforts to retrieve debris and restore the sensitive public lands. 

“We want a good neighborly relation with them, and they want to do the same with us so we can work together with sensible and reasonable approaches to solving these issues,” Faught said, although he noted that the respective missions of the organizations “may not always align.”

Several environmental groups who submitted public comments to the FAA in response to SpaceX’s expansion plans argue that the agency would be violating several laws if it fails to require a more thorough analysis of the company’s environmental impacts in Boca Chica, through a rigorous environmental impact statement, and a clearer plan for mitigating those impacts. Those laws include the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires that federal agencies prepare an environmental impact statement for all “major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” and the Endangered Species Act.

The FAA has until the end of December to review the public comments and determine whether to approve SpaceX to issue a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI) or a Notice of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. A FONSI would allow the launch licensing process to proceed, meaning SpaceX could start testing its giant rockets in early 2022, as long as a review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also due by the end of December, shows that the project won’t put any endangered species in jeopardy of extinction. But if a full environmental impact statement is needed, launches from Boca Chica could be delayed for years.

If the FAA does issue a FONSI, environmental groups could sue the agency. But SpaceX would still be able to proceed with the expansion unless an injunction were obtained.

In a public comment written to the FAA on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Jared Margolis described the FAA’s decision not to prepare an environmental impact statement for the SpaceX expansion as “arbitrary, capricious and in clear violation of NEPA.” He added that it “calls into question whether the agency truly understands the scope of what SpaceX plans to do at the Boca Chica site, and the incredible environmental harm that is likely to occur, and indeed has already occurred.”

Image: A beach in Boca Chica Village, Texas, on June 21, 2021.
A beach in Boca Chica Village, Texas. Verónica G. Cárdenas / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Another public comment, submitted by a group of 11 environmental nonprofits including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Surfrider Foundation, and obtained by NBC News includes a letter sent from the Fish and Wildlife Service, obtained through an earlier public records request by Margolis, that calls on the FAA to carry out another environmental impact statement.

“Due to operations by SpaceX, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s ability to maintain the biological integrity, diversity and environmental health of refuge resources ... has been significantly diminished at the Boca Chica tract,” the letter states. 

FAA spokesperson Steven Kulm said the agency was “committed to complying with the requirements” of NEPA and that the environmental review is “one aspect of this process.” 

He noted that the FAA had previously warned SpaceX that launch towers and structures that it is building cannot skirt the FAA’s environmental review. 

Laury Marshall, a spokeswoman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, said that the agency continues to work with the FAA and SpaceX to “identify ways to further minimize possible effects to listed species from spaceport operations” by “restricting or changing lighting, noise and activity timing.”

Residents like Celia Johnson are resigned to their fate that sooner or later they will have to move to make way for Elon Musk’s interplanetary ambitions. They can refuse to take SpaceX’s buyouts and drag out the eminent domain process, something legal experts like Clay Beard, an attorney at the Texas law firm Dawson & Sodd, who is familiar with the project but not representing any residents, said might yield them more compensation but won’t prevent the condemnation of their properties.

Eventually, however, they’ll have no choice but to leave.

“The only thing I hope for is that Elon will come around and make us a decent offer for the house,” Johnson said. “I don’t need anything bigger, I don’t expect to be a millionaire. I just want to buy another house like the one I have now near the beach.”