Groups seek information on possible collusion between SpaceX and local officials, targeting of environmental activist, and federal licensing process
August 8, 2022, Brownsville, TX – Local activists submitted multiple requests today for information on possible collusion between government officials and Elon Musk’s tech giant SpaceX in the company’s expansion in South Texas and the arrest of an environmental activist. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are part of community groups’ ongoing opposition to the environmental harm and gentrification caused by the company’s expansion in Cameron County, one of the state’s poorest regions.
Since it began operating in 2019, SpaceX has triggered numerous fires and explosions that have scattered pieces of metal so large they must be removed by machines. The earth-shaking noise, industrial fires, and boulder-sized debris threaten the area’s ecosystem, which includes endangered birds like the piping plover, and Kemp's ridley sea turtles, the smallest sea turtles in the world.
SpaceX sits on a sprawling compound located on land sacred to the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe, and Musk, who fancies himself the founder of a city by the South Texas launch site he calls Starbase, has plans to expand further. In June, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) completed its environmental review of SpaceX’s proposed missions. Although the federal agency mandated 75 steps to mitigate harm, the FAA’s finding of “No Significant Impact” clears the way for continued takeoffs of the world’s tallest rocket and the potential for continued, cumulative harm.
Activists also claim they are being harassed by the company, with cooperation from local authorities. On February 16, police swarmed into Rebekah Hinojosa’s home in Brownsville and arrested her for allegedly posting graffiti below a Musk-funded mural – a misdemeanor charge that would ordinarily result in a citation at most.
An organizer for Another Gulf is Possible, Hinojosa is an opponent of Space X’s rocket launch site on Boca Chica Beach, which, she says, is causing environmental destruction and displacement of people of color. After the police released Hinojosa a day later, the Brownsville mayor posted her mugshot and workplace on social media.
“As an organizer and community member of Cameron County, I find it my duty to look out for the well-being of our community. It's disappointing and disconcerting that someone speaking up to defend our home and rights is singled out and persecuted for trying to uphold the welfare of others. I await the disclosure of the information requested so we can have full transparency of the situation at hand,” said Rebekah Hinojosa, a member of the Another Gulf Is Possible Collaborative.
The Freedom of Information requests, filed on behalf of the South Texas activists by LatinoJustice and the Center for Constitutional Rights, seek information from the following public agencies on the following matters:
- Documents and communications from the Brownsville Police Department related to Hinojosa’s arrest
- Communications between Brownsville City Hall and SpaceX, and other agencies regarding Ms. Hinojosa’s arrest
- Information from the Cameron County District Attorney’s office on the detention of two SpaceX employees who were not arrested
- Information from Cameron County on SpaceX’s proposal to dig a massive tunnel from the launch site to San Padre Island
- Records from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) related to the agency’s information-gathering process for its environmental review of SpaceX’s impact on the community
The information requested from the FAA includes all public-scoping comments on the SpaceX rocket program received by the FAA during its review, a copy of two pertinent emails sent by the FAA to “interested parties,” and a list of the “interested parties.”
Residents are not only being cut off from accessing the beach by the company, but they are being actively harmed, activists say. Musk has invited people from outside the state to move to the area, contributing to the displacement of locals as the influx of wealthy newcomers causes rents to rise. SpaceX has reportedly pressured Boca Chica Village residents to sell their homes through heavy-handed tactics such as warnings the launches would shatter their windows. Cameron County and other elected officials have facilitated the corporate takeover of Boca Chica Village and the beach, according to activists, and most of the village including the roads is now owned by SpaceX. Anyone who remains is forced to evacuate during launches, which are often heard or felt by residents living even 10 miles away in Port Isabel and South Padre Island.
“It's disappointing that county officials are more concerned with Elon Musk's vanity project, SpaceX, than their own residents' well-being. We await information from the Texas Public Information Act as we seek to uncover the truth between these local and federal agencies and corporations,” said Priscilla Lugo, Texas Justice Advocate Coordinator at LatinoJustice.
Many local officials have publicly welcomed Musk, who promised to donate $20 million to Brownsville schools and another $10 million to the city. This, activists say, is a pittance for one of the world’s richest people, especially in light of the billions he has received in government subsidies, which include a 10-year tax break from Cameron County.
“Transparency is critical when ongoing government-corporate collusion has direct impacts on community members’ lives,” said Ian Head, coordinator of the Center for Constitutional Rights Open Records Project. “Federal and local government agencies must release all appropriate records and material immediately so that Brownsville residents can have a fuller understanding of what their elected officials are up to.”
“The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did a haphazard job of community outreach, public hearings, and Spanish language access in their review of the SpaceX license to launch the largest rocket in human history from our community. Now we're left bracing ourselves as SpaceX continues its expansion and reach into our community because the FAA left so many questions about explosions and beach access unanswered,” said Emma Guevara, a resident of Brownsville, TX. “We deserve transparency from the regulatory agency and the city and county governments about the private space industry moving into our community.”
Read the requests here.
LatinoJustice PRLDEF works to create a more just society by using and challenging the rule of law to secure transformative, equitable and accessible justice, by empowering our community and by fostering leadership through advocacy and education. For nearly 50 years, LatinoJustice PRLDEF has acted as an advocate against injustices throughout the country. To learn more about LatinoJustice, visit www.LatinoJustice.org.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.