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SpaceX is testing a “flame deflector” for Starship without permits

BOCA CHICA, TX – SEPTEMBER 28: A gated entrance by a prototype of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft is seen at the company’s Texas launch facility on September 28, 2019 in Boca Chica near Brownsville, Texas. The Starship spacecraft is a massive vehicle meant to take people to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. (Photo by Loren Elliott/Getty Images)

Loren Elliott | Getty Images News | Getty Images

SpaceX ran a “full-pressure test” of a new “flame deflector” system at its Starship Super Heavy launch site in South Texas on Friday. However, CNBC has learned that the company never applied for the environmental permits that would allow it to discharge industrial process wastewater into the area surrounding the launchpad as normally required by the federal Clean Water Act.

The flame deflector, or water deluge system, is meant to diffuse heat, sound and energy generated by orbital test flights and launches of the company’s largest ever rocket, which Elon Musk hopes will take people and equipment to the moon, and eventually to Mars.

SpaceX hasn’t disclosed how much water a system test consumes at the site, where that water will run off and what it contains. The Starbase facility, a spaceport with some manufacturing operations onsite, is surrounded by wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico at the southernmost point in Texas. The habitat is crucial for migrating and nesting endangered species and is important to the indigenous population.

In an email to CNBC, a spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state’s environmental regulator, confirmed that as of July 28, SpaceX had not applied for what is called a Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (TPDES) permit at its Starbase facility. The regulator said the SpaceX site has previously attained three stormwater permit authorizations.

“The determination of whether a discharge permit is needed is the responsibility of the business owner based on how they plan to manage wastewater,” the TCEQ wrote in an email to CNBC. The state agency has been in discussions with SpaceX about industrial permitting, the regulator added.

SpaceX hasn’t said why it went ahead without a permit and didn’t respond to a request for comment.

After CNBC reported on the company’s pushing ahead with no permits on Friday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared a post on social media about a “New water deluge system to protect against the immense heat & force of Starship launch.” The post included a video showing copious amounts of water flowing from the test site into the surrounding land at the Boca Chica, Texas facility.

Eric Roesch, an environmental engineer, has been tracking how SpaceX and other aerospace companies comply with environmental regulations in Texas via his newsletter ESGHound

“Industrial process water is a regulated pollutant under the Clean Water Act,” Roesch told CNBC in an interview. “Heat, silt and a range of chemicals that mix into wastewater will degrade the biological integrity of any surrounding wetlands, and erode water quality over time.”

Permits, when granted, require proper treatment and safe disposal of wastewater from industrial processes, Roesch added. Launch sites that feature “deluge” and other water-based cooling systems in the U.S. have a permit equivalent to a TPDES going back to the earliest days of the Space Shuttle.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, criminal enforcement actions can apply to people or companies who “negligently” or “knowingly” discharge pollutants from a “point source” into waters of the United States without a permit. Penalties can include prison time and fines amounting to $2,500 to $50,000 per day.

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The representative for TCEQ told CNBC that the regulator “recommends applications be submitted at least 330 days before the proposed construction of a wastewater treatment facility.” Stormwater permits take far less time to process.

A previous test flight at the Boca Chica site resulted in a mid-flight explosion, with no crew on board. Chunks of concrete from the launchpad and particulate matter blew into sensitive habitat nearby. In response, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the SpaceX Super Heavy launch program pending the conclusion of a “mishap investigation,” standard procedure after such an explosion.

The incident also spurred a lawsuit against the FAA over environmental impacts because the agency had authorized SpaceX to conduct the tests and launches in Texas without a more extensive environmental assessment.

Jared Margolis, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity and lead counsel in this suit against the FAA, told CNBC before the Friday test that running it without a permit is “very concerning.”

“We don’t know if there is any mechanism in place to make sure runoff is not reaching surrounding habitat,” he said. “They are clearly making changes to the launch site, and how they do their launches. There’s been no transparency on that, and no way for the public to see what those changes are or offer comment on them as the National Environment Policy Act requires.”

The FAA said in an email on Friday that “the SpaceX launch site in Boca Chica is not licensed by the FAA,” though a vehicle operators’ license from the agency for SpaceX remains in effect.

Videos showing SpaceX testing its new cooling system this month showed that significant quantities of water from a newly welded piece of steel equipment at the facility flowed to the ground as a result of the tests.

The TCEQ representative told CNBC that “no determination” has been made as to whether the activity violated environmental laws. The agency is currently evaluating the use of the pressurized water system as part of SpaceX launch operations to see if state environmental regulations apply or were violated.

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