Proposed rocket launch site in Texas clears hurdle

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — Building and operating a private rocket launch site along the coast in the southernmost tip of Texas is unlikely to jeopardize the existence of protected animal species and would create few unavoidable impacts, according to a final federal environmental review.

The Federal Aviation Administration released the environmental impact statement for California-based SpaceX on Thursday. It does not guarantee that the FAA would issue launch licenses there, but it is an essential step in that direction.

SpaceX has proposed launching 12 rockets per year from the site east of Brownsville and 3 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border called Boca Chica Beach, but did not make any promises Thursday. If built, it would be the first commercial orbital launch site.

"Though Brownsville remains a finalist for the development of a commercial orbital launch complex, the decision will not be made until all technical and regulatory due diligence is complete," SpaceX spokeswoman Hannah Post said in an email.

She noted several more steps have to be cleared, and that, "While the timing of some of these critical steps is not within SpaceX's control, we are hopeful that these will be complete in the near future."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had raised concerns about possible impact on habitat for some endangered species, ultimately concluded that "the project is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed or proposed to be listed species nor adversely modify piping plover critical habitat."

But wildlife officials don't expect the project to be harmless: Two individual cats, either from the endangered ocelot or jaguarondi species, could be lost as a result of the project in spite of efforts to avoid just that with measures such as posting warning signs along the road leading to the launch site. And federal wildlife officials also anticipate that more than 7 miles of beachfront used by nesting sea turtles could be disturbed by security patrols, though driving is already permitted on the beach.

SpaceX has agreed to a list of measures aimed at minimizing the environmental impact including educating workers about threatened and endangered animals. It also plans to adopt a 3-mile section of the beach and participate in beach cleanups and educational programs.

The Texas launches would create unavoidable noise for residents of a nearby neighborhood and dramatically alter the landscape of sand dunes, wetlands and grasses, but other environmental impacts can be mitigated, the report said.

SpaceX already launches from Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. In addition to serving commercial satellite customers, SpaceX also resupplies the International Space Station.

SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk indicated last month that the company planned to develop the launch site in Texas. Sites in Florida, Georgia and Puerto Rico had been considered as well, but the Texas site was always much further along in the planning process.

The document released Thursday describes why SpaceX eliminated sites in Florida (too much beachfront development) and Puerto Rico (difficulty of transporting cargo from mainland) from contention, but does not mention Georgia.