SaveRGV to sue SpaceX, says ‘deluge system’ not permitted

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The environmental group SaveRGV announced this week that it had sent a letter to SpaceX providing notice of intent to sue under the Clean Water Act over what SaveRGV says are “numerous ongoing violations of federal law” at the company’s Boca Chica/Starbase launch site.

The group made the announcement Wednesday, the day before SpaceX’s fourth Starship orbital test flight, which ended with the Starship and Super Heavy test vehicles making controlled splashdowns in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, respectively, for the first time.

“SpaceX has knowingly committed a violation of the Clean Water Act every time it has activated its fire-suppressant ‘deluge system’ at the launch pad, by discharging industrial wastewater without a permit,” SaveRGV said in its announcement.

SpaceX installed the water deluge system as part of a total rebuild and upgrade of the launch pad, destroyed during the first Starship orbital launch, on April 20, 2023. The system is intended to protect the pad and surrounding infrastructure from the “immense heat & force” during launch, according to Elon Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, who last year described it as similar to a “massive, super strong steel shower head pointing up.”

SaveRGV member Jim Chapman said that “SpaceX must stop breaking the law.”

“Because the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has failed thus far to enforce the law, our local community must turn to the courts to ensure the protection of Boca Chica and its sensitive ecosystem,” he said.

The group cited Federal Aviation Administration documents noting that the deluge system “has the capacity to discharge up to 358,000 gallons of water every time it is activated.” TCEQ correspondence has described the discharge as a “type of industrial wastewater,” though SpaceX has not applied to TCEQ for the necessary wastewater discharge permit, SaveRGV said.

“FAA documents indicate that the deluge water may contain toxic ablated metals and may reach as far as a 0.6 mile radius from the launch pad, which is surrounded by precious habitats in national wildlife refuges and the South Bay Coastal Preserve,” the group said. “These wastewater discharges adversely affect nearby sensitive ecosystems like wetlands, and negatively impact the recreational interests of local communities, including SaveRGV members.

SaveRGV said it will file the lawsuit 60 days from the date of its notification to SpaceX, seeking injunctive relief and civil penalties for every violation of the Clean Water Act.

SpaceX first tested the new deluge system last summer, spurring news reports that the company was doing so without environmental permits. TCEQ, which told CNBC last July that SpaceX has not applied for the required Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for Boca Chica, said it had no comment for this story.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

SaveRGV describes itself as “Texas non-profit corporation that advocates for environmental justice and sustainability and the health and well-being of the Rio Grande Valley community, including but not limited to open beach access.”