14 - Spaced Out Sellout-1 (1)

The Fine Print Part Two; Space X's Lack of Transparency As a Tool for Recolonization

Words by Erin Sheridan

Edited by Freddy Jimenez, Josue Ramirez

Last month, in the middle of a bid to take over Twitter, Elon Musk tweeted to the masses that nothing will deter him “from fighting for a good future and your right to free speech.”

 

That Musk views himself as a crusader for First Amendment rights is difficult to understand given the ways his companies have used provisions in the Texas Public Information Act to block the release of public records in South Texas. I wanted to know what discussions public servants enchanted by SpaceX have facilitated with Musk and his companies behind closed doors. 

 

But the more records I requested, the clearer it became that both governments and Musk’s businesses were willing to stall the release of information that should be available to the public for reasons of ethics and transparency, using large cost estimates, delays and extensions, and even a carve-out in state public records law specifically written to keep SpaceX-related information out of the public sphere.

 

Under the terms of Cameron County’s 2014 tax incentive agreement with SpaceX, county officials are required to make an effort to safeguard all information related to SpaceX, including proprietary, confidential, non-proprietary, non-confidential, and “any other information provided by the Company to the County” — sweeping language that likely violates TPIA (I requested agreements with similar language from other public entities and haven’t yet received any).

 

Does an entire community benefit when a local government uses taxpayer dollars to fund a space port for a private company, then refuses to let the public in on the entire story? 

 

Open records requests show that public entities have not only withheld important public information, but that they’ve also continued to do so with knowledge that Musk’s companies haven’t necessarily followed the rules.

BROWNSVILLE PUBLIC UTILITIES BOARD

Last year, a friend stumbled upon some interesting information at a local coffee shop. A SpaceX contract employee let slip that Elon Musk’s company had negotiated a water rights contract with the Brownsville Public Utilities Board (BPUB).

 

BPUB’s board members are appointed by the City of Brownsville and Mayor Trey Mendez is the board’s only ex-officio member. Given that SpaceX’s CEO has poured private money into the city’s downtown where Mendez owns property and businesses (and that city leadership has used official platforms to market Musk, his companies, and his products), I requested copies of any contracts SpaceX signed with BPUB and emails about SpaceX’s utility requests to the board.

 

The board released its Water Certification Map almost immediately, confirming that the utility has jurisdiction over water near SpaceX’s launch site. But instead of releasing the emails about requests for services, BPUB cited at least 10 provisions of the Texas Public Information Act in letters to the attorney general asking for a ruling on whether to withhold the documents.


One of those provisions invoked a section of code created under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 – an emergency law that enables the government to suspend regulatory statutes in the event of a formally declared disaster – in arguments to withhold a narrowed version of that records request. The board claimed that information having to do with electric utility service at SpaceX’s facilities could jeopardize public safety in the event of a terrorist attack.

The attorney general eventually ordered the release of some of the emails pertaining to the negotiation of SpaceX’s water rights contract. Those emails proved that SpaceX signed a contract for 10 acre-feet of municipal surface water with BPUB on August 30, 2021. However, BPUB would not immediately release a copy of the contract after I requested it despite having claimed in an earlier letter that the board didn’t object to its release. I never received copies of any SpaceX-related contracts from BPUB.

 

Executive Director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas Kelley Shannon said the board’s failure to release its contracts with SpaceX is likely in violation of the latest version of TPIA, which requires governments to release certain contract items, including “purchase price, line-item pricing, goods and services promised, deadlines,” and more, she said.

WATER RIGHTS

BPUB’s unwillingness to release public records brought me to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in an attempt to obtain the documents. The agency put up no fight and released them without delay.

 

TCEQ’s records included two contracts signed by the Rio Grande Watermaster approving the diversion of a total of 10 acre-feet, or roughly 3.26 million gallons of municipal water, from the Rio Grande through December 31, 2022 for a proposed surface water treatment plant to serve SpaceX’s facilities, according to a November 2021 contract. SpaceX paid BPUB $60 per acre-foot.

 

Falcon Reservoir, which supplies most of the water for the Rio Grande Valley through controlled International Boundary and Water Commission releases, reached its lowest level in 20 years in March. An organizer with Save RGV speculated that local farmers already experiencing drought conditions wouldn’t see a lack of irrigation water due to the location of SpaceX’s access point near the Gulf. But the water would be salty, requiring SpaceX to use reverse osmosis and creating the issue of brine discharge.

 

Emails show that while the company negotiated contracts with BPUB, SpaceX employees also made contact with the Laguna Madre Water District about the diversion of public water and the construction of a desalination plant. According to FAA’s Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment for the Starship/Super Heavy, plans for a desalination plant “were included in the draft PEA because it would have been used to facilitate deluge for the launch pad. SpaceX is still considering whether to use deluge water for the launch pad, but, in the event it will, it has decided that it will use truck water, rather than a desalination plant. A desalination plant is not in the reasonably foreseeable future.”


According to the FAA’s September 2021 Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment, discharge from the proposed desalination plant would have occurred through TCEQ-permitted subsurface disposal injection wells, which can include contaminants that harm the surrounding environment (even with federally-required precautions in place). An alternative proposed by SpaceX would have involved shipping the brine off-site.

SpaceX is required by TCEQ to operate the “Starbase” Public Water System on its own due to the lack of existing public water infrastructure at the site, according to the documents. The company’s plans detail a reverse osmosis system that serves the facility’s restaurant, Stargate Café, village residences, village apartment building, airstream parks, and restrooms. 

 

Other correspondence with SpaceX shows that BPUB may have worked with the company to negotiate another five acre-feet of river water for use in 2022, and that by December 2021, the board had been in communication with SpaceX about possible violations to TCEQ’s approved use, which the contracts I received copies of did not specify.

Credit – TCEQ/NorrisLeal.

Part of a document showing job counts per year at “Starbase” and a reduction in Census Tract population where Boca Chica Village used to be

“It was my understanding that you are only using this water drawn from the river for your pilot/testing program, etc, correct?” Maria Leal, BPUB’s Director of Special Projects and Water/Wastewater Engineering, wrote that month. “There have been reports that contractors out there are using this water for construction purposes. If the water is not being used for the intended purposes as outlined by TCEQ, BPUB can be fined by TCEQ as well as you all.”

 

BPUB left it up to SpaceX staff to determine whether the company had stayed in compliance, according to the emails.

EMERGENCY RESPONSE

Activity at the launch site has already caused safety issues. Locals worried about the possibility of rocket debris harming protected lands and wildlife (or falling on nearby LNG terminals) have repeatedly expressed frustration at the lack of response from elected officials. In July 2019, SpaceX’s Starhopper ignited a brush fire that burned 15 to 20 acres of federally-protected refuge land, according to emails from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

The Brownsville Fire Department showed up but “did not pursue putting out the fire because of lack of access,” causing the wildfire to burn into the following day, one email stated. A FWS employee wrote that the fire risk at the site hadn’t been originally assessed as the “project included deluge water poured onto the rocket, thus the evaporation cloud.”

I spoke to a longtime Brownsville firefighter sent to respond that night who wished to remain anonymous. The department raced to the site from the Port of Brownsville, on the other side of the ship channel, a significant distance to travel for an emergency response, the firefighter said.

Upon arriving at “Starbase” that night, the fire department learned that SpaceX didn’t have enough of a perimeter cleared around the launch area to prevent fires and that the company had staffed the site with a single 30-year-old fire truck, a retired firefighter, and an EMT.

“I haven’t been out there since and I don’t want to be a super critic, but I’d like to see fire protection a little more of a factor in that area,” the firefighter said. “You never know where this thing is going to land and if it goes wrong, there are some pretty well-developed areas nearby. It’s a dangerous operation.”

Credit – Erin Sheridan. C

Photos of brush lands along Cameron County beaches

THE BORING COMPANY

The safety risks didn’t stop Cameron County from continuing to allow launches, nor did allegations that SpaceX far exceeded the company’s 300 annual legally allowed road closure hours.

In an August 2021 interview with 60 Minutes, County Judge Eddie Treviño (who had announced his campaign for re-election two months prior) referenced a letter from Save RGV alleging various violations of state law and the county’s Memorandum of Agreement that allows officials to shut off access to public beaches for space launches. “Some of the information in that particular letter – we’re not sure that it was completely accurate. One of the allegations that was made was that SpaceX has exceeded 300 hours. That’s not correct,” Treviño said.

Documents I obtained seem to contradict his statement. A May 2021 letter to the attorney general’s office from Cameron County cited ongoing negotiations with SpaceX in an attempt to avoid possible litigation. “All communications and documents regarding building permits, road closures, agreement modification, and security are rooted in SpaceX’s non-compliance with the county’s agreement,” the letter stated.


I requested copies of any non-disclosure agreements Cameron County had signed with SpaceX, the Musk Foundation, and the Boring Company. On June 9, 2022, I received a copy of a letter Cameron County sent to the attorney general asking to withhold an NDA between the county and SpaceX. Cameron County cited pending litigation filed by Save RGV, the Sierra Club, and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas over the county’s ability to order State Highway 4 closed for space launches as reason to withhold the records.

Emails with county officials show that SpaceX has used charity as leverage in response to alleged violations of the MOA. In a response to a letter from Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz alleging violations of state law over road closures, security guards carrying weapons without required licenses, and the renaming of public roads, SpaceX Senior Director Shyamal Patel reminded the DA that SpaceX had donated $25,000 to Friends of the RGV Reef and had facilitated a campaign to save sea turtles

 

Patel said the county had formally abandoned Joanna Street in 2013 and offered to take ownership of Remedios Avenue to alleviate the troubles. “Under such a process, the property owners along Remedios Avenue would continue to receive access to their property, however, the abandonment of the road by the County would ultimately relieve the County of the costs, burdens, and associated safety issues with maintaining the road (which is not currently being done), which SpaceX would be willing to improve at its own cost,” Patel wrote.

 

On June 20, the Cameron County Commissioner’s Court proposed abandoning three public roads near the launch site. The county allegedly did not include in the record emails containing public comment that had been sent by people unable to attend the hearing.

 

Another of Elon Musk’s companies got involved, too. Brownsville resident Bekah Hinojosa, who was doxxed by Mayor Trey Mendez in February, submitted a records request to Cameron County last year after Treviño proposed the county pay The Boring Company to build a tunnel from Isla Blanca Park to Boca Chica Beach to help SpaceX around its road closure limits.

 

Shortly after submitting the request, Hinojosa received two voicemails from The Boring Company’s attorney and a LinkedIn notification showing that the company’s Business Development Lead Brian Gettinger had viewed her profile. Normally a private company involved in a records request would send documents by email after receiving information from Cameron County. The county’s public records portal does not include a space to enter a phone number when submitting a request. Hinojosa, who was alarmed by the voicemails, is unsure how The Boring Company got her cell phone number.

 

The document Hinojosa got in response – a letter from The Boring Company’s attorney to the attorney general’s office requesting to withhold the records – is almost entirely redacted.

NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT

Local researchers frustrated by the lack of access to the refuge lands near SpaceX’s launch site documented their plight behind the scenes. Emails sent in January 2021 to FWS by David Newstead, director of Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries’ Coastal Birds Program, reported an estimated 1,200 hours of closures in 2020, with 173 days announced as either primary or backup closure dates, and serious discrepancies between county notices and SpaceX communications that allegedly rendered access for research nearly impossible.

The immediate area surrounding the Boca Chica launch site is home to multiple protected species, including the Piping Plover and endangered Red Knots. The closures have meant that Newstead’s researchers either can’t get out to the site or have to stay away out of fear of getting stuck during launches. As a result, they haven’t been able to discern whether the migratory birds they monitor have simply moved away from the site due to noise or if the launches are killing them, he said last year. “They’re migrating from South America, flying for several days straight, landing in Boca Chica, and going to the Arctic from there. If you start breaking a link in that chain, it’s potentially going to have a serious impact. They don’t just go elsewhere,” Newstead said. 

 

Some of the habitat near the launch site consists of algal flats that form over hundreds and thousands of years. The system is wind-driven, pushing water onto the flats, but as soon as development starts compacting sediment with heavy machinery and disturbing the algal mat layer, the habitat is destroyed, Newstead said. “And despite the guidance that (SpaceX) has gotten from FWS and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department about how to retrieve these large pieces of debris that have landed on their properties, they’ve done whatever they wanted, it appears anyway. We were out there (recently) and have some photos of where they’ve gone through, removed bollards and cable across the road, and driven heavy equipment straight out there onto the flats.”

 

Stephanie Bilodeau, one of the program’s biologists, said she wants to be providing information to resource managers to help them better manage the lands rather than getting involved in “these situations where a company is doing something so blatantly outside the scope of what they were originally permitted to do,” she said. “It’s one of those tricky things in science. Do you just keep your mouth shut, keep your head down, and mind your own business, or do you speak out about what you know you’re seeing out there?”

A copy of a slide allegedly presented by SpaceX in 2012 stated that the company promised one launch per month, a fuel source cleaner than jet fuel, no use of toxic propellants, and untouched surrounding land, providing for an “excellent wildlife habitat.”

But SpaceX has continued developing infrastructure despite the risks to wildlife and critical habitat, according to a February 2021 email to FWS. The message indicated that SpaceX has been in talks with Magic Valley Electric Cooperative about plans to run power lines along State Highway 4. According to the document, SpaceX had already purchased materials to move forward with its own plan for power lines despite not having received permission from FWS. The company had also illegally installed a sidewalk, landscape rocks, and a drainage ditch on refuge land without permission, another email stated.

In April, the FAA withdrew SpaceX’s application to fill in wetlands over the company’s failure to provide requested information about environmental impact mitigation plans. According to a researcher who wished to remain anonymous, SpaceX allegedly invited a local environmental advocacy group to the site to discuss mitigation last year, then began contracting with environmental researchers through UTRGV to monitor impact on the refuge lands.

Credit – Erin Sheridan.

The Lower RGV is home to diverse wildlife and protected lands

The source said that researchers involved in that project couldn’t disclose certain restricted data under a non-disclosure agreement the university signed with SpaceX. I requested copies of any NDAs between the university and SpaceX and obtained one that UTRGV signed with the company on April 15, 2020.

 

However, the document does not specify environmental research as a subject and doesn’t provide much information about what the university and SpaceX might be working on (outside of what we already know). The NDA is signed by Michael Patriarca, Executive Vice Dean, Finance & Administration, School of Medicine, and Suzanne Seibert, SpaceX’s Purchasing Director.

RECOLONIZATION OF THE RIO GRANDE VALLEY

In late February, Juan Mancias, Chairman of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas (Esto’k Gna) took a routine trip to Boca Chica Beach to keep an eye on development at the launch site. As he approached “Starbase,” state patrol officers parked along State Highway 4 seemingly monitored movement to and from the area.

Mancias, who has organized across the Rio Grande Valley for years, is paying attention to what Enbridge, tied to oil and gas infrastructure in the area, might be working on with SpaceX. “You need to look at the carbon capturing and the building of pipelines that they want to run up the Rio Grande,” he said. “If they run it behind the wall, there’s only one jurisdiction that’s going to be maintained there, and it’s not even the counties, or local law enforcement, or Texas law enforcement that will have any jurisdiction. Homeland Security owns all of that.”

Credit – Erin Sheridan.

Oil in the sand along Cameron County beaches

Musk and others who thrive financially under white supremacy can operate at Boca Chica by ensuring history is never acknowledged, Mancias said. He pointed out how the federal government waived dozens of laws to expedite the construction of the border wall in 2005, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, setting the stage for private organizations to follow suit on their own projects. Mancias attempted to cite AIRFA in April 2022 when officers stationed at a roadside checkpoint along State Highway 4 blocked him from access. They denied him passage anyway.

Credit – Erin Sheridan.

Photos of Ports of Entry and sections of the border wall in Brownsville

The Esto’k Gna have no state or federal recognition, which Mancias argued shouldn’t be necessary, though if federal recognition were the case, the nation would more than likely have mineral rights, he said. Such recognition would conceivably hinder the development of proposed oil and gas pipelines, LNG terminals, and Musk’s mission to colonize Mars.

SpaceX claimed in its 2012 slide that there are “no federally designated historical or archeological sites on the proposed land.” But colonizers murdered Mancias’ ancestors. The Texas Rangers forced communities underground to survive; the U.S. government drew borders; the modern militarization of the area divides the land through checkpoints that stem the flow of migration back and forth. As Mancias’ daughter Christa put it in an interview, “I was told I was Mexican because I’m brown, [that] there are no Indians because they all died.”

The Draft PEA for SpaceX’s expansion says nothing about native bodies or artifacts in its list of “cultural resources,” but the site is located on land where bodies are buried and artifacts will be found, Mancias said. He cited burial grounds, historic fishing sites that cover the area, lands where communities held birthing and umbilical ceremonies, and areas where people held dances. The Rio Grande itself is considered sacred land for praying. “We are a people connected to that land,” Mancias said. “And when you don’t have a connection, you do exactly what Elon Musk is doing – dig it up like a playground.”

Registered Professional Archeologist Eric Schroeder states in an email I obtained through a FWS request that debris from SpaceX launches has scattered onto neighboring properties, one of which is a wildlife management area owned by TPWD with archeological sites recorded on it. “I’m concerned with not only the damage caused by the initial impact of debris in an area having potentially significant archeological sites, but also the potential damage that might occur due to the removal of the debris by SpaceX,” Schroeder said. “The other issue is that only a small portion of the Boca Chica Wildlife Management area has been surveyed for cultural resources and we are unsure that all historic properties have been discovered or adequately delineated…”

Musk’s philanthropy and alleged mission to save humanity doesn’t make up for the erasure of history in Mancias’ eyes. As he sees it, Musk’s multiple donations to Cameron County public schools are only a continuation of Texas’ violent history when the state’s education system obscures what happened to the people whose land it was to begin with.

Emails I obtained from the county about Musk’s March 30, 2021 donation show that negotiations about spending the funds were held in private. The Musk Foundation requested that no one discuss the meeting publicly, according to an email. Jared Birchall, former senior vice president at Morgan Stanley and possible leadership at Neuralink (who also allegedly manages Elon Musk’s family office Excession LLC and organizes Musk’s itinerary), helped organize the meeting with school officials, emails stated. Igor Kurganov, who serves as a primary contact between the Musk Foundation, the city of Brownsville, and the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, also attended the meeting.

SPACE, ETHICS, HUMAN RIGHTS

Considering a lack of transparency by local governments and the presence of a space corporation whose operations ensure that a legacy of colonization and imperialism are alive and well on occupied land, how do we do better?

 

Part of understanding Elon Musk and SpaceX is developing an understanding of human rights, history, and how that ties into space ethics.

 

At the bare minimum, those involved in the NewSpace industry can get real with what they’re doing and why, said Erika Nesvold, a PhD astronomer who founded the JustSpace Alliance with colleague Lucianne Walkowicz in 2018.  

 

Nesvold began researching ethics and human rights in the context of space exploration after working on a project in the Silicon Valley in 2016. The experience left her disappointed with a NewSpace industry culture that ignores risks to human life in pursuit of interplanetary travel, so she started a podcast and connected with Walkowicz. “We’re trying to connect people who have been doing this fantastic work in their fields for generations on ethics, the history of colonization, and how to learn from the past,” Nesvold said.

 

Musk’s argument that humanity will cease to exist if he doesn’t launch rockets to Mars is less a public service and more a public relations game, she explained. “He can argue he’s doing this for the benefit of humanity, but at the same time, (Musk) is operating in a capitalist system and making a lot of money by doing all of this.”

 

It’s unclear how anything Musk is doing will benefit humanity as a whole or if it will do so equitably. As Musk clarified in 2018, SpaceX is developing Starship as a reusable rocket in part so that the company can sell rides – whether that’s to billionaire tourists, NASA, or the U.S. military.

 

Nesvold pointed out that objectively, the private space industry’s obligation is to shareholders, not the human race. There aren’t many places in the United States (or anywhere on Earth) that meet the conditions for space launches that aren’t already inhabited or in use. Key to any NewSpace discussion is centering the fair treatment of humans and the planet, especially people already struggling to be heard, she said.

 

Fairer treatment means companies can’t look away from their obligation to listen to concerns about the surrounding environment in the same way resource extraction companies are slowly being held to account in the court of public opinion. Nesvold argued the same idea applies to the RGV’s elected officials, who are obligated to transparency.

 

“Space is a place we could use, a place we could live, a place we could damage,” Nesvold said. “In all of those respects, it’s a place where we need to be very deliberate about how we explore, study, and move into.”

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