Officials welcome wildlife agency’s assessment of rocket launch impacts - Brownsville Herald: News

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‘ONE STEP CLOSER’ Officials welcome wildlife agency’s assessment of rocket launch impacts

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Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2014 10:19 pm

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assessment regarding proposed rocket launches in Cameron County has brought SpaceX another step closer to planting its flag on Boca Chica Beach, officials indicated Thursday.

The proposed rocket launch site has passed its latest round of scrutiny from the federal wildlife agency, which has issued its final opinion to the Federal Aviation Administration, according to documents released on the FAA’s website.

The USFWS’s opinion is that rocket launches would “not likely jeopardize” endangered species in Cameron County. In the report, the agency suggested measures to avoid or minimize what it described as minimal risks to wildlife and habitat.

Although SpaceX representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment, Cameron County Judge Carlos H. Cascos welcomed the opinion Thursday.

“That’s a good sign. That just gets us that one step closer to getting the environmental impact study approved,” Cascos said. “I have long said that I believe we have a tremendous opportunity to be attractive to SpaceX, and obviously this is good news.”

The USFWS opinion seemingly clears many of the remaining environmental questions that faced SpaceX’s goal of staging commercial rocket launches on an approximately 50-acre lot near Boca Chica Beach that neighbors wildlife refuge area managed by federal and state officials.

Gilbert Salinas, executive vice president for the Brownsville Economic Development Council, said officials are excited that U.S. Fish and Wildlife came out with the determination that “a project of this scope would not have an impact on the environment. It is pretty significant.”

Salinas said arriving at this part of the FAA’s permitting process has been because of a lot of work from not only SpaceX, but community, state and federal officials.

“I think it is a reflection of what our community can do when they pull together to work on a project such as SpaceX,” Salinas said. “We are just excited.”

The Dec. 18, 2013 opinion from USFW was required for the final environmental impact statement being processed by the FAA, the agency that will issue or deny launch licenses and experimental permits to SpaceX. The final statement might be released as early as May, a FAA official indicated Thursday.

The FAA’s draft environmental report was unveiled April 2013 and left unanswered questions about how the proposed rocket operations might affect critically threatened or endangered species, such as the ocelot, jaguarundi, northern aplomado falcon, Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, hawksbill sea turtle, leatherback sea turtle, green sea turtle, loggerhead sea turtle and the piping plover.

The USFWS opinion now addresses those questions and evaluated the likely impacts to the piping plover’s critical habitat and the proposed-as-threatened red knot.

“It is the opinion of the Service that the proposed SpaceX project is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any of the above listed or proposed to be listed species nor adversely modify piping plover critical habitat,” the USFWS wrote in its Final Biological and Conference Opinion, which was sent to the FAA on Dec. 18, 2013.

“We concur and understand that in order to protect these species FAA will ensure precautions and education outreach efforts will be enforced,” USFWS wrote.

Nearly two years have passed since SpaceX announced that Texas is one of four sites under consideration for a commercial rocket launch pad. Other possible locations include Florida, Georgia and Puerto Rico.

Brownsville, county and state officials have continuously courted the private commercial company, and the state has reportedly offered $15 million in incentives to lure SpaceX to the Rio Grande Valley.

The proposed Texas site is at the eastern end of State Highway 4 at Boca Chica Beach, about three miles north of the Mexican border and about five miles south of Port Isabel and South Padre Island.

As part of its recommendations, the USFWS suggests the space agency “avoid and minimize measures to reduce impacts to nesting adult sea turtles, their nest and hatchlings; ocelots, Gulf Coast jaguarundis; nothern aplomado falcons; and piping plovers and piping plover critical habitat in Critical Habitat Units.”

Regarding conservation, the agency recommends that officials:

>> “...locate areas where there are opportunities to present or establish service-approved workshops, signage, or other opportunities for each species in counties where study will be conducted.”

>> “Work with the service to design and fund a research program to determine the population of ocelots and jaguarundis and prey species available to the cats in the south Texas counties.”

>>”Promote progressive range management techniques for the falcon on large expanses of grassland and coastal prairie habitat with long term cooperative arrangements such as leases, exchanges, purchases, and conservation education.”

Friends of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife President Tom DeMaar said he agrees with the USFWS opinion that the SpaceX proposal to build a spaceport on Boca Chica Beach will not adversely affect the species in question.

“It will upset some wildlife in the small footprint, but in its larger environmental impact, in the big picture, I think the wildlife will be OK,” DeMaar said. “The ocelot will have to learn how to walk around it. The piping plover will have to find someplace else.”

However, there is still a looming question for DeMaar, and it has to do with infrastructure.

“They are going to have to improve Highway 4 to accommodate the traffic because there will be big trucks and construction, and right now it’s a rinky-dink two-lane road,” DeMaar said. “The Texas Department of Transportation needs to make sure, and SpaceX needs to make sure, that the road they put in is wildlife friendly so wildlife can cross that road at many points.”

Roadways like Highway 100 and 48 that connect Harlingen and Brownsville to South Padre Island are not wildlife friendly because they utilize concrete barriers to divide the road, DeMaar said.

Typically, DeMaar said the most wildlife friendly roads are ones that use cable barriers, like Interstate 69 north of Harlingen.

And there’s more than just roads on his mind. DeMaar said SpaceX will have to build a fence around its spaceport and that should also have small gaps that only animals — like the Texas tortoise or indigo snake—could pass through.

“And other small things like that, like wastewater is taken care of and fuel supplies are well protected so that we’re not looking at a spill down the road,” DeMaar said.

And local wildlife experts could help SpaceX understand how to best coexist with Rio Grande Valley wildlife.

“An intergalactic communications network interfacing with local wildlife on a mutually beneficial level would be great,” DeMaar said.

And to be clear, DeMaar said he thinks SpaceX would be great for Brownsville, the Valley and all of South Texas.

“We just have to find ways that wildlife and humans can live together in order to make wildlife conservation work,” DeMaar said.

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