SpaceX Violated the Clean Water Act in February 2023, Texas Environmental Records Show
Violation due to lack of Stormwater Permits; Deluge System Investigation Still underway
SpaceX has committed a “serious violation” of the Clean Water Act and State Water Code at its Boca Chica launch facility, according to records obtained from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The violation was discovered during a February 2023 inspection by the regulatory agency.
SpaceX was issued a Notice of Enforcement (NOE) in June, which cited the company as being out of compliance with Stormwater permitting requirements. Notably, SpaceX didn’t have a stormwater permit at all, something I have observed as non-compliant numerous times on this publication and on Twitter, dating as far back as April 2022. TCEQ also cited the company for not implementing “Best Management Practices” (BMPs) required to minimize incidental washout pollution associated with rainfall events.
This enforcement event is related to Stormwater Permitting and does not involve the newly installed “deluge system” at the Boca Chica Launch site, which would require a separate Individual Industrial Discharge Permit.
According to the complaint:
On February 8, 2023, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) Harlingen Region received a complaint alleging industrial stormwater concerns at the Starbase Production Site and SpaceX Texas Launch Site.
The facility is allegedly in violation of 30 Texas Administrative Code (TAC) § 281.25(a)(4) for failure to obtain required permits for stormwater discharges. Specifically, on the day of the investigation it was observed that authorization for point source discharges of stormwater associated with industrial activity had not been obtained. It should be noted that industrial activities associated to SIC code 3761 are required to obtain coverage under a TPDES MSGP prior to commencing operation.
I wrote about SpaceX’s failure to apply for the simple Multi-Sector General Stormwater Permit in December of last year. This was a fairly obvious oversight:
Now, SpaceX has been manufacturing spacecraft for some time. Years, in fact. They should have had a Stormwater permit in place long ago. But they didn’t. And six months after the above condition was placed upon them, there still isn’t one. Don’t take my word for it. TCEQ confirms that there are only “one domestic wastewater reuse authorization (No. 2E-0000298) and two construction stormwater general permits (No. TXR1595KG and TXR15962P) associated with the Starbase Production Site.”
TCEQ’s investigator chided the company in the inspection report for the lack of registration and BMP implementation, stating that the investigator verified the company had explicit “prior knowledge” of the State’s stormwater permitting requirements; in particular noting that SpaceX’s Engine Test Facility in McGregor, TX has an active Stormwater permit. Note: This is a cute way of telling SpaceX that they can’t play dumb about the permitting requirement and was used to justify enforcement and penalties.
The investigation ended with a Notice of Enforcement (NOE) against the company, with the agency using its harsher “serious violation” language:
Also, please be advised that the Legislature has granted enforcement powers to the TCEQ to carry out its mission to protect human health and the environment. Due to the apparent seriousness of the alleged violation, formal enforcement action has been initiated, and additional violations may be cited upon further review. We encourage you to immediately begin taking actions to address the outstanding alleged violation.
What about the deluge system?
I want to emphasize that this Enforcement event is only for Stormwater activities. The General Stormwater permit is granted nearly instantly after a Notice of Intent (NOI) is submitted through the State’s electronic STEERS permitting and reporting system.
This June enforcement event will come with a small civil penalty and can impact future enforcement decisions by the state. SpaceX has already cured stormwater non-compliance going forward with the automatic approval of a permit application they submitted in July of this year. However, it was not lost on TCEQ that the company should have been well aware of the requirement prior:
Prior knowledge of the MSGP TXR050000 (ed note: GENERAL PERMIT) was verified as the responsible party CN602867657 is associated to another regulated entity named Space Exploration RN100250844 located in 1 Rocket Rd in McGregor, Texas 76657 that has obtained industrial coverage under permit number TXR05DB24 (Attachment G).
SpaceX’s new “deluge system” is an entirely different animal, however.
I’ve been assured by every SpaceX superfan on the internet that Texas is a Cowboy state and SpaceX doesn’t need to comply with the law regarding their unpermitted deluge system discharges. I’ve had my own scraps with TCEQ over the years as a regulated entity, and they are far from pushovers in regard to basic compliance with fundamental rules. I think this NOE confirms that while the State may drag its heels from time to time, they’re not simply going to rubber-stamp obviously illegal behavior.
A Clean Water Act permit for the “Rocket Bidet/Deluge” would NOT be covered by the July General Permit Authorization, as water used to cool a rocket is not considered “stormwater,” but is rather an individual point source of pollution.
As I wrote last month:
SpaceX doesn’t have the space to adequately collect this water, nor treat it in settling basins. If they wanted to dig out such ponds, they’d need an Army Corps permit that they also do not have and have not applied for. Per TCEQ, a NPDES permit takes roughly 330 days, and that's if the project isn’t complicated and doesn’t generate a lot of public comment
According to TCEQ, the agency is “currently evaluating” SpaceX’s Deluge system going forward. I’m reasonably certain that all the hot rocket water blasted out into the wetlands will (eventually) be categorized as an illegal discharge. These discharges require an individual permit with a year-plus turnaround time. It’ll be curious to see how the State, SpaceX and the FAA navigate around this one once push comes to shove.
Because sometimes, the law is simply the law.
Until Next Time…