The “EIS” and Proposed Commercial Spaceport Process
The environmental impact statement (EIS) is a federally required document that is ultimately used by a government agency “decision maker” to decide whether or not a project is compatible with existing environmental guidelines and government regulations and hence can move forward or not. In the case of the proposed Camden County spaceport, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the government agency responding to a request from an applicant, the Camden County commissioners, to consider building a commercial spaceport. After announcing that there had been a request for an EIS, the FAA invited public “scoping comments” in the fall of 2014; the scoping comment phase closed in January 2015. Theoretically, reasonable scoping comments are required to be addressed in a final EIS document. Developing a meaningful, even-handed EIS is typically considered a first important step in the process.
Other than the solicitation of the aforementioned scoping comments, the process for developing an EIS for a commercial spaceport unfortunately requires minimal, prior FAA analysis of the feasibility of such a project prior to the development of the EIS document. As in the Camden County example, essentially any entity can request that an EIS be initiated (assuming they have the cash to pay for such), the FAA complies by identifying a contractor who will do the basic EIS evaluation, and the FAA then bills the applicant for the cost of the contractor. In our example, Camden County taxpayers have paid over $1M to the Leidos corporation to prepare a draft EIS (dEIS) document. This part of the process has been frequently been referred to by the FAA as “applicant driven” and Leidos and Camden County paid consultants worked together on large parts of a dEIS.
Leidos began their part of preparing a dEIS in January 2015, after the “scoping comments” had been submitted. Twenty three months later, in April of 2018, the FAA made available a copy of the dEIS under FAA letterhead. The public and interested government agencies had only 90 days (until June 14) to review and submit comments to this lengthy (~1000 page) document. This was an intense period of research and review activity by many people, countless hours of preparation, including public and private meetings between concerned citizens and the FAA.
More than 14,000 comments were received from many sources. The consensus of many of the comments from a wide variety of sources, such as the National Park Service, the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Center for a Sustainable Coast, the US Navy, One Hundred Miles, Wilderness Watch, and even a subcommittee of Camden County’s own “Spaceport Steering Committee”, is that the dEIS is incomplete and poorly done. The dEIS contains multiple significant omissions and oversights, that demonstrate an incomplete appreciation of Georgia State law and the FAA’s own regulations, let alone critical environmental concerns. The dEIS failed to respond to important scoping comments made over two years earlier. Some of the dEIS omissions and oversights are quite complex and some are quite simple; future contributions to this series will delve into some of the more specific, important issues that the public and other government agencies identified with the dEIS. One of the most salient comments to the dEIS is that the document does not provide the necessary basic information with which a FAA “decision maker” could reasonably make an truly informed decision.
Will the FAA require a rare second round of input and EIS review? Will Camden County ‘play out the clock’ in hopes that the current federal administration will lessen the public’s and other government agencies input into the process? Will Camden County do as administrator Steve Howard has promised and apply for a site license in any case even with a flawed, incomplete EIS document? Steve Howard recently announced that “Now that the environmental subcommittee has submitted its comments on the Spaceport Camden Draft Environmental Impact Statement, we are moving to a new phase in the project”, and Camden County funded PR activities have indeed moved on to overtly political themes.
It is reasonable to ask how can such a flawed EIS ever be approved by the FAA? However, one must also ask has the FAA ever turned down a site license for a commercial spaceport and the answer is no! There is no evidence to suggest that the FAA has the will, even in the wake of unfavorable, critical reviews of a dEIS, to deny a site license permit. The FAA might for example ‘punt’, grant a site license (thus satisfying part of their dual mandate to support commercial space ventures), and then depend on on subsequent, expensive litigation from concerned citizen groups to terminate what is tacitly recognized as a flawed process. Another scenario might suggest that the FAA may find it politically expedient to grant a site license to the applicant (“throw them a bone”) even though the FAA may subsequently never grant a permit to launch a rocket from that site (in which case the entire dEIS review process to this point will have been a colossal waste of time and effort). If Camden County exercises their option to buy contaminated property(ies), prior to acquiring permits for launching commercial rockets, taxpayers will not have been well served by either the FAA or the county commissioners. We need to rally round our elected officials, including the Camden County commissioners, to help everyone fully appreciate this!