Elon Musk is Above the Law
Hot Rocket Water Rocks Out
It should have been evident after an SEC settlement was signed over the “$420 funding secured” debacle where Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla (and numerous other companies), was given a slap on the wrist for committing the single largest market manipulation securities fraud violation in history: Elon Musk is Above the Law. Any other executive who dared do a fraction of what he got away with would’ve been slapped with a Director and Officer (D&O) ban by the Securities regulator faster than you can say “order of magnitude.”
Maybe it should have been crystal clear the second Musk (via Tesla) was given another barely inconvenient NLRB enforcement order for harassing and threatening union organizers, with one of the only tangible conditions requiring Musk to delete a Tweet (something he has yet to do, 2 years later): Laws don’t apply to Elon Musk.
What about the time Musk’s brain implant company Neuralink slaughtered and tortured hundreds of test animals in an unimaginably cruel and illegal fashion, covered it up, and then convinced a major State University to take the blame, all in service of clinical trials justified by junk science? Was there a consequence? I think not.
There’s also the time he treasonously sabotaged a military operation against our geopolitical foe, Russia, as acting CEO of a military defense contractor. And the time his company knowingly turned off control devices for carcinogenic air toxic pollution in order to make more cars. Then there’s the time his half-witted brother dumped $100 million in Tesla shares just days before Musk announced he was thinking of selling his own stake, sending the stock into a freefall.
Elon Musk is the Mr. Magoo of criminals, bumbling from one hilariously over-the-top and sloppy crime to another but always somehow landing on his feet, unmolested and unbothered, sporting a shit-eating grin. Many of the wealthiest and most powerful among us dabble in the law-bending arts. But they usually at least have the good sense to not tweet about it or rub our faces in it. They prefer to pick their crimes carefully (Donald Trump caveat applies here).
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I use the descriptor “criminal” for Musk, but in all seriousness, I don’t think that’s quite right. He’s a serial lawbreaker. The term “Criminal” invokes the idea of consequences enforced by Courts and The Justice System. These do not apply to the Man or any entity under the Musk, Inc. umbrella.
The number of laws and regulations that Musk and his companies have broken is almost impressive. Nearly every agency Musk Inc. touches in his ever-expanding crime spree has let him walk. The past few years of shenanigans in South Texas involving the flailing Starship program have been surreal. I’ve spent far too much brain energy on this, but it’s been content people crave, so I have dutifully obliged.
I scored a minor hit by roughly predicting the outcome of first Starship launch (a big mess), but the ship has been grounded for flight #2, and there’s been some drama about the next flight, all centered on the FAA giving the go-ahead.
As I suspected would happen, regulators let Musk and SpaceX violate the Clean Water Act; the FAA approved SpaceX’s launch license yesterday, following a nominal “environmental review” of the deluge system. You can read my previous work on this topic here:
SpaceX Waterboards the Rules as the FAA Watches
I'm going to keep this as succinct as possible. Every launch site in the nation, no matter the fuel (CH4, kero, H2, etc) or location, with a water deluge system, has a wastewater system to capture and treat all rocket cooling water. Every last drop. The launch sites also all have industrial discharge water permits. This is because of the Clean Water Act (CWA), which is administered by individual states.
SpaceX does not have this permit because they do not want to get one. They also cannot capture the hot rocket water, as we've seen it spray directly into the wetland. This is a violation of the Clean Water Act.
SpaceX has not submitted a Notice of Intent (NOI) to TCEQ for the deluge system (which they must do for ANY industrial process discharge, regardless of the water chemistry). SpaceX has not submitted this NOI because they do not want to do so.
TCEQ, the Texas Environmental Regulator, could clear this up, if SpaceX were to submit an NOI for this activity. But, again, SpaceX does not want to do this. And TCEQ, while not blessing the discharges, does not seem to want to do anything to stop it, despite its mandate to do exactly that.
Now, FAA cannot issue a launch license if it involves SpaceX violating an environmental law; this is in FAA regulations and SpaceX's NEPA approval. What a pickle!
Instead of doing the thing everyone else does (ask the regulator, TCEQ, who oversees the law in question for a determination ), SpaceX put the following passage in the Section 7 Endangered Species Act review:
In this passage, SpaceX
🟡Admits they violated the law already, but…
🟢Say they won't do it again, based on vibes and "trust us, bro."
🟠Uses a less stringent and irrelevant *rainfall* based general permit to handwave away pollutants of concern from hot rocket water, which is definitionally not stormwater.
🔵Admits that water toxic metals will be blasted off and mixed with water during every launch, but…
🟣That all of that water will be captured on-site, despite ample video evidence showing otherwise
TCEQ has had time to do this review. It's been 5 months since SpaceX completed construction of the deluge system. But TCEQ would not approve the above justification because it would be wildly illegal, and they don't want to be stomped by the EPA.
SpaceX may not want to follow the law. Still, they do want a launch license, so they did something I've never seen before: stick the above insane justification in an Endangered Species Act review, which is completed by the Fish And Wildlife Service, who has exactly zero authority to authorize discharges under the Clean Water Act.
And it worked! An FAA administrator rubber-stamped it.
SpaceX also included this chart in its submittal for water samples grabbed during static test fires:
There are more than a few issues here. The chart is missing a nickel concentration assay, which is odd because nickel is:
A toxic pollutant regulated by the Clean Water Act
Very soluble in water and
A key component of many metal alloys, including stainless steel
Is easily ablated in the presence of high temperatures
Here is a list of pollutants in the above chart measured at or above TCEQ and Clean Water Act permitting review thresholds.1
Total Suspended Solids
Here is a list of pollutants SpaceX would be required to test for (but didn’t), based on the Texas Water Code and the Clean Water Act:
Texas prohibits discharges into that wetland above 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Rocket water straight off the pad is usually above 95 degrees, for obvious reasons.
A former EPA employee from the Water Quality division told me several factors presented were above the criteria for Toxic acute water quality criterion for saltwater and that:
Potable water source concentrations are irrelevant to questions of toxicity to aquatic life, or really even human health water quality- which focuses on potential bioaccumulation in aquatic food webs, rather than direct effects of humans ingesting water.
SpaceX clearly has no idea what they are doing with this.
I suspect that the illegality of this approval and the recklessness of SpaceX’s actions will eventually come to light. But that doesn’t matter. FAA approved a launch under dubious circumstances and for now, the show goes on. Given the seeming disinterest FAA has for the rules and standard procedures, it really should make one wonder if the Incident Investigation for the April Starship mishap is up to snuff or if FAA simply accepted SpaceX’s assessment at face value, consequences be damned.
Admittedly, this latest crime is more of the smashed window burglary variety, especially in light of Musk’s troubling geopolitical machinations and the mangled human bodies inside crashed self-driving cars. SpaceX’s disdain of safety law, too, has left untold needless pain and suffering with hardly a response from OSHA.
But something about this launch approval is troubling in a unique way. Regulators didn’t fail to act after a Musk Inc. subsidiary messed up; they’ve been proactively approving it right out in the open. I’d argue that Regulatory capture of this sort is the most significant Musk innovation there is.
If you ask the Musk fandom to seriously answer why this sort of behavior is acceptable, you’ll often get some variation of reply that Musk is saving the world via his forward-thinking, humanity-saving vision and that allowing him to allocate capital as he sees fit is a net positive for society.
It should be mentioned that Elon Musk is also a bad businessman. He may be a prodigious fundraiser of capital, but Tesla has just a cumulative free cash flow of $10 billion since inception; it’s a business that is experiencing negative sales growth, rapidly decaying margins, and overvalued inventory on its toxic balance sheet piling up, the same exact problems that compounded at GM before things went pear-shaped in the Great Financial Crisis.
Even that $10 billion supporting an eyewatering $600 billion market capitalization isn’t so great if you consider the very real fact that the other wobbly legs of Musk Inc, notably SpaceX, have raised well north of $10 billion without ever producing any profits or cash flow. And that’s all before considering the great Twitter bonfire, which has resulted in $40 billion in equity and debt disappearing due to Musk’s astounding incompetence.
Perhaps it’s fitting as a picture-perfect description of the rise of American Fascism that the same day Musk’s SpaceX was granted a license by the FAA to launch another rocket under a laughably bad interpretation of a 50-year-old Environmental law, Musk decided to Tweet an affirmation to a Nazi that Jews are to blame for coordinating a flood of brown people into the US (and that they deserve what they get).
The defining characteristic of Fascism, as it grew like wildfire a century ago in Europe, was marrying big business tycoons to the government under the auspices of “populism” with no guardrails or separation between the state and the oligarchy. As with 20th-century Europe, today, the ills of society aren’t blamed on the mega-rich but instead redirected at minorities and other easily demonized segments of the populace.
Musk is far too happy to play along because this discourse allows him to get away with everything. Sadly, he will keep on committing crimes until someone stops him. I’m certainly not holding my breath for that.
30 TAC §307.6(b),(c),(d)
30 TAC §309.1
40 CFR § 122.2