As SpaceX Grows, So Do Complaints From Environmentalists, Indigenous Groups and Brownsville Residents

Elon Musk’s private space company has evolved into a sprawling industrial complex. But concerns are increasing about beach closures, noise and potential harm to threatened species.

One day last month, Juan Mancias, the chief of the Carrizo Comecrudo tribe of Texas, and two companions headed to Boca Chica village, a bayside community in Cameron County, at the southernmost tip of the Lonestar state, close to the Mexican border. 

Boca Chica, which means “little mouth” in Spanish, is where the fresh waters of the Rio Grande trickle into the Gulf of Mexico. The three men intended to say prayers on a nearby beach, an eight-mile stretch of untamed shoreline that is part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

“The river is a sacred place for praying. That’s when we start calling for the rains and we go to the river because that’s where the rains come from,” Mancias explained. 

It was a four-hour drive, but about a mile before Mancias and his companions reached the beach, they were stopped by police officers at a roadside checkpoint and told to turn back, not far from a launch site built by Elon Musk’s commercial space company SpaceX. Ever since Musk announced he was coming to South Texas in 2014, the small unincorporated community of Boca Chica and residents of nearby Brownsville have seen the area change at breakneck speed.

“They told us that SpaceX was testing a rocket engine and access to the beach was restricted for safety reasons,” Mancias said.

“I asked them to let us go to the beach,” he said, “and even quoted the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to get access because it was a sacred day for us.” The officers, however, still wouldn’t let them through. 

Tired of blocked access to the only public beach in the area, the Comecrudo Tribe, along with two local environmental groups, have filed suit against the county, the Texas General Land Office, and its Commissioner George P. Bush over the road closures during SpaceX operations. Restricting access to a public beach violates the Texas Constitution, the coalition of plaintiffs said, in announcing the legal action. 

In the first three months of 2022, the plaintiffs said, the beach had been effectively closed for 196 hours; it was closed for more than 600 hours in 2021. “This is far beyond the numbers reported by SpaceX or even allowed under the framework the defendants are using as an unconstitutional loophole,” the plaintiffs said in a statement. 

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