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SpaceX's Starship work in South Texas spurs lawsuit over Boca Chica beach access

SpaceX's Starship on the launch pad at Starbase on March 18, 2022.
(Image credit: SpaceX)

A judge is expected to hear a lawsuit June 1 concerning access restrictions to a South Texas beach amid SpaceX activities for the Starship program .

The Sierra Club, the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas and non-profit Save RGV have joined together in a lawsuit against the Texas General Land Office, Texas land commissioner George P. Bush and Cameron County in Texas for closing Boca Chica Beach periodically for SpaceX operations during Starship tests, the Sierra Club stated May 5. The Boca Chica beach is near SpaceX's Starbase facility, where it is building Starship rocket prototypes and their massive Super Heavy boosters.

"Restricting access to a public beach, as the defendants have done, violates the Texas constitution," the Sierra Club said in a statement. None of the allegations have been proven in court, and the statement does not name SpaceX among the entities pursued in the lawsuit. 

Related: 8 ways that SpaceX has transformed spaceflight

The disputed Boca Chica beach is just down the road a bit from SpaceX's Starbase facility where it develops, builds and tests its next-generation Starship vehicle and does other company work. Starbase is currently under a Federal Aviation Administration environmental review ahead of the company's plans to launch it and a Super Heavy rocket on its debut orbital journey. 

The fully reusable stack is intended to deliver people and cargo to the moon, Mars and other distant destinations. Founder Elon Musk has also said Mars settlement and deep space exploration will see reduced costs due to its reusability.

In 2013, according to the Sierra Club's statement (opens in new tab), the Texas legislature amended the Texas Open Beaches Act to allow space flight operations to close beach access. Then in 2018, the club added, SpaceX built a rocket facility 1,500 feet (460 meters) from the beach's water edge. 

"The 2013 statute change conflicts with the state constitution, which Texas voters amended in 2009 — by a 77 percent majority — to guarantee the right to free and open access to public beaches," the Sierra Club stated.

The club alleged the beach was closed for 196 hours (the equivalent of about 8 days) in the first three months of 2022, and that 2021 saw more than 600 hours (roughly 25 equivalent days) of closures. 

"The defendants have closed Boca Chica beach so frequently that RGV [Rio Grande Valley] residents have seen their access essentially disappear. The Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of Texas, which holds the land of Boca Chica sacred, has been ignored while they lose access to their ancestral heritage," the club stated.

The lawsuit was first filed by Save RGV in October 2021, and the Sierra Club and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas both announced they were joining May 5. The group is asking for the court to invalidate the 2013 amendment.

The group also alleges that the approximately 27-mile (43 kilometer) Highway 4 in the area has been closed for SpaceX operations, but did not say in their May 5 statement how much of the highway has been closed or how often.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.