Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Unfettered Rockets

 

Famous environmental radical Richard
Nixon signing the National Environmental
Policy Act
(NEPA) on January 1, 1970.

President Nixon was no radical, of course, but he did sign a number of common-sense environmental laws that have provided for improved protection of land, water, and public health for the past half-century.

One of these is the National Environmental Policy Act, which created the Environment Protection Agency and instituted the requirement that any large project involving the Federal government would require an assessment of its potential environmental, economic, and health impacts. What would be more inappropriate, after all, than for one arm of the Federal government to damage an environment that other Federal agencies were endeavoring to protect? 

This is all on my mind as I read about the Federal Aviation Administration green-lighting the latest ego trip of a certain billionaire with extra-planetary ambitions. The New York Times headline tells us that SpaceX Wins Environmental Approval for Launch of Mars Rocket, but one must read the article itself to realize how errant that decision is and how many aspects of the project merit review. It will push people out of their homes and disrupt access to a nearby beach on a frequent basis. 

Even a cursory glance at the map of the area in question -- where SpaceX already has some facilities -- shows that it is in an extremely sensitive coastal location, surrounded by fragile barrier islands, wildlife management areas, and a rare kind of estuary. 

Having lived in the region -- and having taught environmental geography about a mile from the site -- I can think of several more aspects of this location that warrant review. Brownsville is in the Lower Rio Grande Valley -- the delta of the Rio Grande -- which is superlative in several relevant ways.

The four-county area is overwhelmingly Hispanic and low-income, suggesting two ways in which local power may not be exercised fully and fairly in this complex process. Moreover, this region is the area in which the seasonal flyways of many protected migratory birds converge. In fact, the majority of the birds found anywhere in the United States are found at least seasonally in this region. Certainly the potential interactions between these birds and rocket launches is worthy of study. 

It could be that a thorough NEPA review would still allow for this project to go forward; we will not know unless the Biden Administration does its job and insists on it. Even if the project is approved, however, the thorough review required by Nixon's pen would almost certainly lead to useful modifications of the project.

Lagniappe: Local Voice

It is gratifying to see our old friend Jim Chapman mentioned in the article -- the entire region would probably be a parking lot by now if it were not for him and other brave activists in the Valley.

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