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Wildlife Protections Take a Back Seat to Elon Musk’s Ambitions

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Wildlife Protections Take a Back Seat to Elon Musk’s Ambitions
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As Elon Musk’s Starship — the largest rocket ever manufactured — successfully blasted toward the sky last month, the launch was hailed as a giant leap for SpaceX and the United States’ civilian space program.

Two hours later, once conditions were deemed safe, a team from SpaceX, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a conservation group began canvassing the fragile migratory bird habitat surrounding the launch site.

The impact was obvious.

The launch had unleashed an enormous burst of mud, stones and fiery debris across the public lands encircling Mr. Musk’s $3 billion space compound. Chunks of sheet metal and insulation were strewn across the sand flats on one side of a state park. Elsewhere, a small fire had ignited, leaving a charred patch of park grasslands — remnants from the blastoff that burned 7.5 million pounds of fuel.

Most disturbing to one member of the entourage was the yellow smear on the soil in the same spot that a bird’s nest lay the day before. None of the nine nests recorded by the nonprofit Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program before the launch had survived intact.

Egg yolk now stained the ground.

“The nests have all been messed up or have eggs missing,” Justin LeClaire, a Coastal Bend wildlife biologist, told a Fish and Wildlife inspector as a New York Times reporter observed nearby.

The outcome was part of a well-documented pattern.

On at least 19 occasions since 2019, SpaceX operations have caused fires, leaks, explosions or other problems associated with the rapid growth of Mr. Musk’s complex in Boca Chica. These incidents have caused environmental damage and reflect a broader debate over how to balance technological and economic progress against protections of delicate ecosystems and local communities.

That natural tension is heightened by Mr. Musk’s influence over American space aspirations. Members of Congress and senior officials in the Biden administration have fretted privately and publicly about the extent of Mr. Musk’s power as the U.S. government increasingly relies on SpaceX for commercial space operations and for its plans to travel to the moon and even Mars.

An examination of Mr. Musk’s tactics in South Texas shows how he exploited the limitations and competing missions of the various agencies most poised to be a check on the ferocious expansion of the industrial complex he calls Starbase. Those charged with protecting the area’s cultural and natural resources — particularly officials from the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service — repeatedly lost out to more powerful agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, whose goals are intertwined with Mr. Musk’s.

In the end, South Texas’ ecology took a back seat to SpaceX’s — and the country’s — ambitions.

Executives from SpaceX declined repeated requests in person and via email to comment. But Gary Henry, who until this year served as a SpaceX adviser on Pentagon launch programs, said the company was aware of the officials’ complaints about environmental impact and was committed to addressing them.

Kelvin B. Coleman, the top F.A.A. official overseeing space launch licenses, said he was convinced that his agency was doing its duty, which is to foster space travel safely.

“Blowing debris into state parks or national land is not what we prescribed, but the bottom line is no one got hurt, no one got injured,” Mr. Coleman said in an interview. “We certainly don’t want people to feel like they’re bulldozed. But it’s a really important operation that SpaceX is conducting down there. It is really important to our civilian space program.”

The conflict in South Texas is likely to have echoes at SpaceX’s other launch sites in California and Florida as the company increases the frequency of its launches, and with Starship, the size of its rockets.

This account is based on more than 10,000 pages of emails and other state and federal records made public through open records requests, court filings and federal disclosures, as well as interviews with more than two dozen local, federal and state officials overseeing the project.

These records reveal how SpaceX over time expanded its rocket manufacturing and launch operations in South Texas to a scale far grander than Mr. Musk had first promised.

“They kept saying, ‘No, we are not going to do that, we are not going to do that,’ and then they came back and said, ‘Yes, we are,’” said Mark Spier, who served as the top local official for the National Park Service when the SpaceX project got underway. “We were being misled.”

Mr. Musk and the company had pledged a different sensibility when setting up operations in Boca Chica. The project, SpaceX told local officials, would have a “small, eco-friendly footprint” and “surrounding area is left untouched,” meaning it “provides for an excellent wildlife habitat.”

But from the start, according to interviews with executives involved in SpaceX’s land purchase, Mr. Musk’s plan was to use federal and state lands alongside the small piece of property the company initially purchased, knowing that rocket mishaps would most likely send debris flying.

“We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around and so if it blows up, it’s cool,” Mr. Musk said at a 2018 news conference.

When Mr. Musk started talking about his desire to build a spacecraft to Mars, the area near Brownsville, Texas, was an attractive option.

Its location at one of the United States’ most southern points would allow rockets easier access to orbit, as Mr. Musk could use the Earth’s faster rotation closer to the Equator as a slingshot to get into space. The sparsely populated area was known to be pro-business and to have few regulations that might slow or hinder construction.

By April 2011, SpaceX representatives were secretly scouring land records in Cameron County to look for the perfect spot, said Gilberto Salinas, then a Brownsville economic development executive.

The key was to buy only a small chunk of land, which SpaceX officials nicknamed the “doughnut hole.”

The postage-stamp-size piece of private property they eyed was encircled primarily by government-owned state parks and federal wildlife refuge areas where nothing could be built. Still, residents lived in close-by Boca Chica Village and tourists routinely visited the state parks. Mr. Musk’s plan would require an evacuation of the parks and residential areas for every launch.

This part of Texas is protected as an important bird habitat. The mud flats adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico are rich in nutrients and insects, and the area is on the migratory pathway birds take as they move north and south. Nearly 500 species of birds have been documented here, including rare or threatened ones. The nearby Boca Chica beach also serves as a breeding ground for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, the world’s most endangered species of sea turtle.

As early as 2011, SpaceX asked Texas officials “how frequently TX Parks lands is used in this area,” one email from a SpaceX executive said.

Mr. Musk presented a plan to local and federal officials to use Boca Chica as another launch site for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which was starting to regularly launch from Florida and California. The Falcon 9, SpaceX’s workhorse, would soon become the most popular way for the U.S. government and commercial companies to get satellites to orbit.

In Texas, the company initially told officials any construction for this third Falcon 9 launch site would be modest, costing only about $50 million and creating about 150 jobs.

Privately, Mr. Musk was already planning something much bigger, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Times. SpaceX was aiming to use this corner of Texas to launch a rocket like the world had never seen.

“It was going to be a much bigger rocket and full-scale manufacturing of the rockets here in South Texas,” Mr. Salinas said he was told by SpaceX as early as 2014.

Starship, as this new rocket would be called, dwarfs the largest version of the Falcon and weighs nearly four times as much. Its first-stage engines produce an extraordinary 16.7 million pounds of thrust — more than double the output of the first stage of the Saturn V rocket that powered NASA’s Apollo moon missions.

The F.A.A. conducted an environmental impact study for the site, but it was premised on Mr. Musk’s original proposal to use Falcon rockets at the location, not a behemoth like Starship.

After the Starship plans became public, F.A.A. officials told a local environmental group that they planned to conduct a new environmental impact assessment for the project. But the agency reversed itself and decided instead to modify the old one.

Most fundamentally, the F.A.A. decided it could legally consider the environmental impact of the launchpad operations and its control center, but not the much larger rocket factory nearby. Fish and Wildlife officials objected, arguing that the impact from the entire SpaceX complex should be considered.

The F.A.A.’s legal decision was critical. The launchpad eventually became just a small piece of SpaceX’s overall rocket manufacturing and testing facilities, now spread over approximately 350 acres of land the company acquired over time.

In the end, the F.A.A. determined that SpaceX’s activities were unlikely to jeopardize the “continued existence” of any threatened species or harm critical habitat.

George Nield, the top F.A.A. space-launch official at the time SpaceX sought approval for the site, acknowledged there might be gaps in the environmental review process. But he sees SpaceX as “leveraging” government land — not exploiting it.

“What can we do to maximize SpaceX’s bold, grand vision?” Mr. Nield said, recalling the F.A.A.’s goal. “Fish and Wildlife has a mission. But it was different from ours and it did not include a lot of rockets.”

The sun was preparing to set on a late autumn afternoon in Boca Chica nearly four years ago, when SpaceX began the countdown for Serial Number 8, a Starship prototype ready for its first high-altitude launch.

The test vehicle slowly lifted off the ground until it reached a height of about eight miles. That was far short of orbit, but the altitude that Mr. Musk was seeking. The vehicle then turned horizontally and began a controlled descent in anticipation of a gentle landing.

Instead, it exploded into a giant fireball during this December 2020 test, blasting tiny pieces of the rocket across the area.

Mr. Musk celebrated the results on social media. SpaceX has long viewed the explosion of its early rocket versions as a way to learn how to tweak designs.

“We got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!” Mr. Musk exclaimed on Twitter, just minutes after the flight had ended, adding soon after, “Mars, here we come!!”

What he did not mention in his tweets was that the launch itself violated a federal order.

SpaceX launched the rocket after being told explicitly by the F.A.A. to hold back. The agency had outstanding concerns that the launch might result in a shock wave that could damage homes even far from the launch site.

Fish and Wildlife officials were furious. In emails back and forth, they began to question if the F.A.A. was effectively conspiring with SpaceX to undermine their work in protecting the area.

Neither SpaceX nor the F.A.A. have “authorization under the Endangered Species Act for the testing activities they are engaging in, whether there is an anomaly or not,” Dawn Gardiner, a Fish and Wildlife assistant field supervisor, wrote in an email to her bosses a few days after the incident.

Frustration was also growing at the National Park Service, which supervises the Palmito Ranch Battlefield, the site of the last Civil War fight. With a rocket launchpad now two miles away, Interior Department officials told the F.A.A. that the site had been “degraded significantly by SpaceX, due to visibility of intrusive structures now present.”

Mr. Spier, the Park Service official who gave input to the F.A.A. as it negotiated with SpaceX, said the company initially agreed to a number of conditions, including limiting the height of its buildings, painting them in natural colors and curbing nighttime light that might distract hatching turtles.

Gradually, Mr. Spier said, SpaceX violated several of those agreements. He tried to elevate the matter to his superiors, but eventually realized SpaceX would get its way. He retired from the Park Service in late 2019, fed up.

The F.A.A.’s top administrator at the time did have a 30-minute call with Mr. Musk after the unauthorized launch in December 2020 and “made it clear that the F.A.A. expects SpaceX to develop and foster a robust safety culture that stresses adherence to F.A.A. rules,” the agency said in a statement.

But the F.A.A. let SpaceX conduct its own investigation into the improper launch. The agency also refused to make the results of the inquiry public.

Stacey Zee, an environmental protection specialist at the F.A.A., wrote in a 2021 email to officials at Fish and Wildlife and the state parks department who asked to see the results that the agency was precluded from passing them along because they contained sensitive commercial information about SpaceX.

Stephanie Bilodeau, a wildlife biologist monitoring bird populations along the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, was headed out to an inspection one morning in 2021 when she encountered some unexpected trouble.

A security guard halted Ms. Bilodeau from driving down the road that passed near the SpaceX site — and later did the same to a law enforcement official who went to check on the practice, resulting in a written warning to SpaceX.

SpaceX was not only harming wildlife conservation areas, according to local environmental groups and Fish and Wildlife staff members, it was now broadly restricting access to them.

When SpaceX first sought permission from the Texas Legislature to close the beach and the area’s only road before launches, the company initially agreed to limit closures to 180 hours a year. Instead, the road was closed for an average of about 500 hours per year since 2021, according to a tally by the Coastal Bend group.

Christopher Basaldú of Brownsville, an anthropologist, said that Mr. Musk’s space operations have threatened area habitat and cut off access to the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, which has long relied on the area.

“Here he is saying he is going to save humanity by colonizing Mars, but he is treating the land and the people from around here, including the Indigenous people, like a sacrifice zone,” said Dr. Basaldú, a member of the tribe.

Similar concerns have emerged in California. Federal authorities, on behalf of SpaceX, had secured support from state officials to close a secluded public beach near Vandenberg Space Force Base no more than 12 times a year. But as early as July of last year, the company had already surpassed that limit.

The California Coastal Commission is now objecting to SpaceX’s desire to significantly increase the number of Vandenberg launches. The company’s activities “are having effects on coastal uses and resources substantially different than originally described,” the commission notified the federal government this year.

Likewise, opposition is mounting in Florida to SpaceX’s request before the F.A.A. to start launching its Starship at Kennedy Space Center as often as 44 times a year. (Mr. Musk has said that in a few years he hopes to launch Starships hundreds and, eventually, a thousand times annually.)

The F.A.A., in a statement to The Times, said the agency “is dedicated to ensuring all voices are heard so that an appropriate balance can be found between environmental protection and our future in space.”

The pattern established in Boca Chica explains why environmentalists elsewhere have expressed skepticism of the F.A.A.’s stance.

Even when SpaceX was publicly discussing using only Falcon rockets in Boca Chica, the company had told the F.A.A. that it intended to install a so-called flame diverter system to prevent damage to the launchpad and mute the rocket’s roar. During a launch, the system was to pump as much as 200,000 gallons of water into the rocket exhaust plume.

In fact, no such system had been finished — or been given permits by Texas to operate by the first full-scale test launch of the Starship rocket in spring 2023.

SpaceX went ahead with the test anyway.

Mr. Musk, in a tweet, had said he realized he was taking a risk. “Aspiring to have no flame diverter in Boca, but this could turn out to be a mistake,” he wrote.

The problems started as soon as the engines on Starship’s first stage ignited. The energy they created pulverized the launchpad, ripping up the concrete base and then digging a large crater under the platform.

Steel sheets, concrete chunks and shrapnel were hurled thousands of feet into the air then slammed into the bird habitat as well as onto the nearby state park and beach. One concrete piece was found 2,680 feet from the launch site — far outside the zone where the F.A.A. thought damage could occur.

The rocket then malfunctioned and immediately started to go off course. An automated self-destruct system eventually caused the rocket to explode.

The noise was so loud that it exceeded the limits on one of the sound measurement equipment Fish and Wildlife was relying on — a device that maxes out at 143.8 decibels, a level considered “painful and dangerous.”

Several days later, after being allowed to inspect the damage, Fish and Wildlife sent a request to the F.A.A. to “discuss noise, temperature and vibration levels associated with the launch,” emails show.

The F.A.A. opened a mishap investigation — again relying on SpaceX and its consultants to do most of the work.

By late last summer, Mr. Musk began a pressure campaign to force the F.A.A. to rapidly authorize him to launch again.

The company sent one of its top executives — a former NASA official, William Gerstenmaier — to Washington to testify before the Senate to complain about how long Starship’s approvals were taking and to urge accelerated environmental reviews.

Pressure has also come from within the Biden administration. The Defense Department and NASA both intend to fly cargo aboard the new Starship. And NASA has a $2.9 billion contract to use the rocket to land astronauts on the moon for the first time in more than 50 years.

“SpaceX has been waiting to work with the Interior Department and some of the environmental concerns associated with launching there,” the Air Force secretary, Frank Kendall, told a House committee in April soon after a visit to Boca Chica. “And it was a significant delay.”

The F.A.A. generated a list of 63 corrective actions for SpaceX to address the problems from the April 2023 mishap, including installing a flame diverter. SpaceX agreed to them, and the agency ultimately gave the green light.

Fish and Wildlife also capitulated. It signed off on the changes just a few days before Starship’s second launch in November.

That did not end the agency’s battles with SpaceX.

Fish and Wildlife has begun an investigation into the damage to the nest eggs from the June launch, said Aubry Buzek, an agency spokeswoman. She said the agency was working with SpaceX and others “to reduce impacts to wildlife and public lands” and to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

The agency has also raised concerns about SpaceX’s approach to congestion in Boca Chica. The traffic was so bad on the tiny two-lane road that serves the area — as SpaceX builds out a one-million-square-foot rocket factory, adds a second launchpad and erects worker housing — that SpaceX built a hovercraft shuttle exclusively for its employees. That solution created what Fish and Wildlife officials described in a letter to SpaceX as new hazards to a “globally important shorebird area.”

SpaceX, as part of a wildlife monitoring plan it is funding, teamed up with a nonprofit called Sea Turtle Inc. to monitor the turtles and if necessary to relocate their eggs. It also hired a consultant to track bird patterns.

SpaceX’s researchers “found little to no evidence” of a change in the area bird population, according to a federal summary of the results.

But three years of data collected by the Coastal Bend group near the SpaceX site indicated a 54 percent decline in the threatened piping plover population through 2021.

Mr. Musk, in public statements, has expressed pride in the transformation he has overseen in once-peaceful Boca Chica, where some 3,400 workers arrive daily in an area that even now has no public amenities — not even a convenience store.

“It is wild that you got this sort of quite sophisticated factory on a sandbar by the Rio Grande,” Mr. Musk said in an interview with a space enthusiast the day before last month’s launch. “It’s like an alien spaceship landed.”

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