One day last month, Juan Mancias, the chief of the Carrizo Comecrudo tribe of Texas, and two companions headed to Boca Chica village, a bayside community in Cameron County, at the southernmost tip of the Lonestar state, close to the Mexican border.
Boca Chica, which means “little mouth” in Spanish, is where the fresh waters of the Rio Grande trickle into the Gulf of Mexico. The three men intended to say prayers on a nearby beach, an eight-mile stretch of untamed shoreline that is part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
“The river is a sacred place for praying. That’s when we start calling for the rains and we go to the river because that’s where the rains come from,” Mancias explained.
It was a four-hour drive, but about a mile before Mancias and his companions reached the beach, they were stopped by police officers at a roadside checkpoint and told to turn back, not far from a launch site built by Elon Musk’s commercial space company SpaceX. Ever since Musk announced he was coming to South Texas in 2014, the small unincorporated community of Boca Chica and residents of nearby Brownsville have seen the area change at breakneck speed.
“They told us that SpaceX was testing a rocket engine and access to the beach was restricted for safety reasons,” Mancias said.
“I asked them to let us go to the beach,” he said, “and even quoted the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to get access because it was a sacred day for us.” The officers, however, still wouldn’t let them through.
Tired of blocked access to the only public beach in the area, the Comecrudo Tribe, along with two local environmental groups, have filed suit against the county, the Texas General Land Office, and its Commissioner George P. Bush over the road closures during SpaceX operations. Restricting access to a public beach violates the Texas Constitution, the coalition of plaintiffs said, in announcing the legal action.
In the first three months of 2022, the plaintiffs said, the beach had been effectively closed for 196 hours; it was closed for more than 600 hours in 2021. “This is far beyond the numbers reported by SpaceX or even allowed under the framework the defendants are using as an unconstitutional loophole,” the plaintiffs said in a statement.
SpaceX, asked about the closures for this article, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
But the road closures, earsplitting explosions when a launch fails, and the lack of access to public areas are not the only concerns for residents of Boca Chica village and the nearby city of Brownsville.
Since construction began in late 2015, the SpaceX facility—nicknamed Starbase—has evolved into a sprawling industrial complex, with launch sites, storage tanks for rocket fuel, and assembly and testing facilities busy with hundreds of workers. Starbase is one of the two spaceports in the United States licensed exclusively for private use.
Musk tweeted in March 2021 that he is “creating the city of Starbase” in Texas. A few weeks later, he tweeted that SpaceX was hiring engineers, technicians and support staff, urging people who wanted to work for the company to move to Starbase or the greater Brownsville area.
One of the poorest cities in the United States, Brownsville is home to a large Hispanic population and challenged by high rates of unemployment and poverty. SpaceX rolled in with big plans and tall promises of jobs and investment, promising to turn the city into a launch site for commercial voyages to Mars and beyond.
County and city officials, and some businesses, welcomed SpaceX as a much-needed boost to the local economy, bringing well-paying jobs and growth opportunities. At a recent “State of the City” event, Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez said SpaceX was projected to contribute $885 million in gross economic output for Cameron County in 2022. He said that 71 percent of SpaceX employees were residents of Rio Grande Valley and thanked Musk for donating money for school improvement and downtown revitalization programs.
Environmental advocates and local activists and human rights groups have warned that the expanding SpaceX footprint is eroding Brownsville’s cultural identity, endangering ecological resources and sacred sites, and deepening the socio-economic disparities in the Hispanic majority city of 300,000. Testing bigger and more powerful rockets next to the city, a protected nature reserve and cultural sites can have devastating consequences, they argue.
But some authorities in Brownsville have not taken kindly to criticism. Rebekah Hinojosa, a local organizer and environmental activist, was arrested in February for allegedly spray-painting the words “gentrified” and “stop SpaceX” under a mural downtown.
Hinojosa said two cars of Brownsville police arrived at her apartment on the morning of Feb. 16 and pushed into the apartment without presenting a warrant. “Police forced its way into my apartment. They pushed and handcuffed me and didn’t even allow me to dress properly,” she said, adding that the officers also threatened to charge her with resisting arrest.
“I was barefoot when they walked me to the car and took me to the police station downtown,.” she said.
Hinojosa was transferred to a jail cell where, she said, her prescription glasses were taken away and she was interrogated without access to legal counsel. After 26 hours, she was released on a personal recognizance bond.
“We will continue to protest the negative environmental impact of continuing space launches,” Hinojosa said in a statement after her release.
In a written response, a spokesman for Brownsville police department said the case is ongoing and has not been closed by the District Attorney’s Office. “All the evidence and officers involved will give their testimony during the hearing,” he said. “Our department’s policy and procedures will also be presented at the time it is requested in the hearing.”
The mural Hinojosa allegedly spray-painted protest graffiti on was one of two that have popped up in downtown Brownsville, part of the city’s larger effort to rebrand itself.
Josue Ramirez, a local artist and a cultural critic, said the murals were painted by artists who had no ties with the local community. “Elon Musk Foundation gave the money for three murals,” Ramirez said, adding that one mural was painted by Los Angeles-based artist Ted Kelly. A Mexican artist, Sophia Castellanos, was commissioned to paint the other mural.
“Why couldn’t they find a local artist to do that?” said Ramirez.
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This region of South Texas has seen previous attempts to change the local culture and rebrand Brownsville. In the early 20th century, outside investors dubbed the area the Magic Valley to attract wealthy visitors to the area, Ramirez said.
“Developers and railroad companies recruited midwestern prospects through staged performances and carefully orchestrated ‘home-seeker tours,’” Ramirez wrote recently in Trucho, a local media outlet, adding that “white families were transported to South Texas to generate interest and investment in the ‘cheap land’ and opportunities.”
Ramirez said these examples show how visual art and creative productions were used to distort local history, culture and people.“These murals painted by non-resident artists and financed by an outsider, Elon Musk, are doing the same thing to Brownsville—this time under the shiny banner of Starbase,” Ramirez said.
The Swiss investment bank UBS has estimated the commercial space industry will swell to more than $805 billion by 2030, a more than two-fold increase from about $400 billion in 2019. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), which regulates the commercial space industry, said in 2021 that it was “creating a single licensing regime for all types of commercial space flight launch and reentry operations.” The agency “aims to support greater innovation, flexibility and efficiency in commercial space operations,” an FAA spokesman said.
Initially, the FAA licensed SpaceX for its Falcon series rockets and testing of reusable launch vehicles. The agency based its decision on a 2014 Environmental Impact Assessment, which found that the SpaceX activities would not significantly affect the ecological habitat that surrounded the launch site.
But SpaceX abandoned those earlier plans in 2018 and began to manufacture and test its most powerful rocket systems, Starship and Super Heavy, at the site. Approximately 400 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter, the FAA described Starship/Super Heavy launch vehicles as multi-mission, fully reusable, super heavy-lift rockets, designed to transport around 100 space tourists to the red planet.
To augment its expanded space transportation and exploration goals, SpaceX now plans to construct an on-site liquid natural gas (LNG) pretreatment system, a desalination plant and a launch and a landing site, among other support structures.
In September of last year, the FAA carried out a Programmatic Environmental Assessment—PEA for short—to determine if the new round of SpaceX operations would significantly affect the environment. If the analysis determined that the risks were significant, the FAA would be required to carry out a detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the federal National Environmental Protection Act. Otherwise, the permitting could go ahead. However, the FAA postponed the release of its findings, which were scheduled to be announced in April and early May.
The agency said it was now working toward releasing the assessment on May 31, 2022. “SpaceX made multiple changes to its application that require additional FAA analysis,” a FAA spokesman said, adding that the agency is also continuing to review about 18,000 public comments on the matter. “The completion of the PEA will not guarantee that the FAA will issue a launch license. SpaceX’s application must also meet FAA safety, risk and financial responsibility requirements,” the agency said.
In a recent tweet, Musk said he expects SpaceX to launch its first orbital test flight this month, and indicated that the company might shift the launch to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center if the FAA decides to conduct an EIS. Last year, Musk criticized the FAA in a Twitter post, saying “The FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure.” and adding, “Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”
To keep SpaceX from pulling out of Brownsville, city authorities are reportedly lobbying for an FAA nod to SpaceX plans.
But in recent years, SpaceX has met significant operational challenges that sparked concerns over public safety and threats to the nature reserve next to the launch site. Between December 2020 and March 2021, the residents of Boca Chica village and Brownsville said they experienced at least four earsplitting rocket explosions, scaring away native birds and wildlife and sending a slew of debris deep into the surrounding nature reserve.
Stephanie Bilodeau, a bird biologist with the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, noted that the habitat surrounding SpaceX is part of a National Wildlife Refuge property. “The biggest explosion was in March last year and debris went as far as the eye can see,” she said. “It took SpaceX three months to clean up all of those little pieces of metal that were thrown everywhere out there.”
The area contains sensitive algal flats, Bilodeau said, and just having people out there walking around and picking up and dragging pieces of metal through sensitive algal flats is bound to have a negative impact. “We’ve definitely seen a decrease in nesting activity for the birds that we’ve been monitoring,” she said. “It seems that birds are potentially moving away from those areas, which is not great for the species because that’s the most suitable habitat for them.”
Bilodeau said she’s heard people say that the area is “just a big wasteland,” which makes it perfect for testing rockets. But, she said, “That’s just not true. It’s one of the most important places in the country for shorebirds.”
Describing the wildlife as “super diverse,” Bilodeau recited a list of birds and species native to the area that were categorized as threatened under federal and state laws. “It’s sad to see this happening to such an important area,” she said.
It’s not only birds and wildlife that the SpaceX buildout is threatening with displacement. Many residents of Boca Chica village—a majority among them retirees—have sold off their homes to SpaceX in recent years to avoid the earth-shaking explosions, falling debris and noisy, round-the-clock activity. The few who remain in the area have to temporarily evacuate their homes each time a launch is scheduled. And the launches are set to become more frequent as SpaceX eyes new frontiers in outer space.
A NASA safety panel said in January that SpaceX plans 52 launches in 2022, compared with 31 last year.
A coalition of native and environmental activists and other advocacy groups, is already fighting, beyond SpaceX, the massive liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals proposed for the port of Brownsville, including Texas LNG and Rio Grande LNG. Enbridge Inc., a multinational pipeline company, and Texas LNG have announced plans to expand the existing 160-mile Valley Crossing pipeline in South Texas.
There are also growing concerns over waste disposal, onsite storage of flammable propellants, and pollution from the launches and engine testing.
In a letter of more than 100 pages last November, addressed to FAA’s Environmental Protection Specialist Stacey Zee, several environmental and community organizations expressed dissatisfaction with the agency’s draft environmental assessment and listed in detail the reasons why they consider SpaceX environmentally destructive and harmful to wildlife and the local community.
In March 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also sent a letter to the FAA, saying it was concerned that changes and modifications to SpaceX facilities “do not conform to the original project description, potential violations, and incidents resulting in damages on refuge lands and excessive closure notices that affect public and scientific access to the beach.” The FAA, the letter said, had not adequately addressed concerns the agency raised in its earlier comments.
Dr. Christopher Basaldu, a member of the Carrizo Comecrudo tribe, said the conversation about environmental justice in places like Brownsville needs to incorporate the pre-colonial history of the greater Rio Grande Valley. “It’s not enough to say native communities, as communities of color, are usually very affected by pollution. It’s more than that. It’s that native and Indigenous people have moral, spiritual and even political rights to challenge polluting and extractive development. They have prior claims in the land.”
Meanwhile, Hinjosa is busy collecting signatures on a petition calling for Brownsville mayor to be investigated and for the charges against her to be dropped. She said she is waiting for a court hearing and getting treatment for PTSD from her February arrest.
“We won’t stop protesting SpaceX expansion into our community. It’s becoming just another polluting industry on our coastline,” she said.