Wednesday, April 17, 2013

South Texas SpaceX site gets preliminary OK from feds

South Texas' hopes of becoming a hub for commercial space missions are still alive. Federal regulators have released a preliminary report that says California-based SpaceX can launch rockets from a proposed site near Brownsville without devastating the sensitive environment around Boca Chica beach as long as the company takes steps to protect several endangered species, the water supply and plant life.

The report released late Monday by the Federal Aviation Administration is only a draft. A final impact study is expected later this year before the FAA decides whether to award SpaceX launch licenses for its proposed Boca Chica spaceport.

The draft report is viewed as a huge jolt of good news for state and local officials trying to lure the company to build its rocket launch site in South Texas. Competition from other states also hoping to land the project is stiff.

"It all would have been a moot point if the report was negative," said Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos. "This is a tremendous step forward."

Officials in Cameron County and in Austin have been waiting for the FAA to release its draft impact study for about a year. Meanwhile, Texas lawmakers are trying to pass several bills to help the company build its spaceport near Brownsville.

"Now that we have preliminary approval, I think the Legislature will work quickly to help secure the project that will bring a huge economic benefit to the state's poorest area, attract thousands of tourists interested in space, and keep Texas in the leadership position in space exploration," said Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, who is sponsoring a bill to close Boca Chica beach during SpaceX launches.

The project has been met with opposition from environmentalists.

Last year, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department sent a letter to the FAA outlining its concerns with the project. Environment Texas also launched a petition to stop the proposed construction of the spaceport, citing concerns wildlife could face from "noise, heat, vibration, fencing and hazardous material spills."

"We're certainly not opposing the idea of a spaceport in Texas, but we think that spot could be a danger to the sensitive environment," said Luke Metzger, director of the environmental-advocacy group.

The FAA draft report does cite a likely impact to several species of birds, felines and sea turtles. The study, however, contains a list of measures SpaceX would have to implement to make sure there are "no significant impacts on wildlife."

Those measures include avoiding launches when wildlife are most active, and providing pre-and post-launch surveys for endangered birds.

"That can all be mitigated. It has been done before," said Gilbert Salinas, executive vice president of the Brownsville Economic Development Council. "The report was better than what I expected. We're closer to the finish line now."

The FAA will conduct a public hearing on its draft report in Brownsville on May 7.


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