Sierra Club, Native Americans Sue Over Boca Chica Beach Closures

In July 2021, SpaceX issued a statement responding to Cameron County’s allegations that it went overboard with public beach and lane closures. SpaceX is authorized to close local roads for up to 300 hours a year and Cameron County’s District County responded to complaints that SpaceX exceeded that.

Now the Sierra Club and a nonprofit organization representing the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas filed a lawsuit in Cameron County District Court, alleging that the beach closures violated the Texas state constitution. They allege that the constitution guarantees access to public beaches like Boca Chica Beach, which is close to SpaceX’s rocket test facility.

The Sierra Club says that Cameron County closed beaches for 196 hours from January to March 2022 and 600 hours in 2021.

The Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas alleges that the closures prevent its members from accessing Boca Chica Beach, a site that is sacred to them. They say they regularly visit the beach to leave offerings for their ancestors.

The lawsuits acknowledge that Texas amended the Texas Open Beaches Act to allow counties to close public beaches for spaceflight-related activity in 2013. However, the plaintiffs allege that Cameron County closed beaches and access roads to beaches for activities that are unrelated to spaceflight. SpaceX also conducts ground testing of rocket engines.

An environmental advocacy group called SaveRGV filed a lawsuit for similar reasons last October. SaveRGV board member Maria Galasso, who lives in the area, complained that residents “can’t plan to go to the beach anymore because even if you think the beach is going to be open, they close the highway.”

SpaceX calls the beach and road closures a matter of safety. In May 2021, it finally managed to preserve an intact prototype officially called SN15 after a high-altitude launch test after losing four prototypes in a row. SN8, SN9, SN10, and SN11 all exploded upon landing or shortly after landing. If they had exploded while still high in the air, they could have sent debris flying over a radius that included Boca Chica Beach.

The FAA also reviews both the safety and the environmental impact of each launch at SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility. Its approval of a planned orbital test of the Starship/Super Heavy stack has been delayed for months due to an ongoing environmental review and the sheer number of public comments it received.

However, SpaceX President Gwynn Shotwell says that the test could happen as early as this summer if the FAA doesn’t hold things up and CEO Elon Musk floated the possibility of moving Starship testing to Florida. If such a move happens, it would likely be inspired by frustration about regulatory holdups in SpaceX’s ultimate goal of developing the capacity for “mass transit” to Mars.

Most recently, Gwynn Shotwell reiterated this goal, saying that it could happen by the end of the 2020s. This timeline, of course, assumes that there will be no major problems or delays.

From a more Earth-based perspective, Starship could enable trips from anywhere to anywhere on Earth in less than 30 minutes. This is something that the U.S. Air Force plans to look more closely at for transportation of payloads that need to be delivered to anywhere on Earth quickly.

As normal for a company headed by Elon Musk, SpaceX didn’t respond to requests for comment about the latest lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas.