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SpaceX Violates The Clean Water Act out in the Open
Does it matter?
Fresh off my commitment to "Stop exclusively posting about Elon Musk," I'm back at it. Luckily, this post is clean and to the point.
I subscribe to RGV Photography's excellent Patreon service. The company's owners have produced spectacular photos of the Starbase site, which have been an instrumental tool in breaking down what is going on in Boca Chica. They did their weekly flyover of the area last week, and I noticed something strange:
At first glance, the white residue on the ground outside of the Vertical launch area looked like, um... fire fighting foam? Maybe a surfactant of some sort? I did some digging, and according to the sharp SpaceX Commentator, Zack Golden, it's all but certainly the result of large amounts of Liquid Nitrogen from the cryogenic tank farm.
That white residue is, therefore, ice. Ice is water; Nitrogen quickly evaporates into the atmosphere. The quantity of Nitrogen appears to be voluminous enough to have sat pooled in liquid form for some time. Water and Nitrogen released into a wetland isn't an environmental concern, though, right?
Studious readers of this publication will know that the answer is "actually, that's an environmental violation." Let's dig in.
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The Clean Water Act, regulated by both EPA and TCEQ (Texas' environmental regulator), states that it is
That phrase is simple yet so complex; let's break it down.
Unlawful: I think this one is self-explanatory. Specific penalties and remedies for an unlawful discharge go from civil to criminal and can result in monetary fines, jail time, and forced shutdown of a process on a case-by-case basis. We can go into remedies later, but for now, "unlawful" seems pretty easy to grasp.
Discharge any pollutant: This one is handily defined in the Clean Water Act as "any addition of any pollutant to the waters of the US (sic)."
Pollutant: Again, per the Clean Water Act:
The term "pollutant" means dredged spoil, solid waste, incinerator residue, sewage, garbage, sewage sludge, munitions, chemical wastes, biological materials, radioactive materials, heat, wrecked or discarded equipment, rock, sand, cellar dirt, and industrial, municipal, and agricultural waste discharged into water.
The Clean Water Act provides a framework to define effluent limits and specific chemical requirements based on process type and receiving water body. But you'll notice that "heat" is specifically called out as a pollutant, and NPDES discharge permits issued by the EPA and States will generally call out a temperature range for a discharge. For example, process water from power plants are given an acceptable range so that the heat from the discharged water does not upset the biological balance of the receiving water body.
Heat, defined by the EPA and affirmed by courts, is understood to mean the Enthalpy definition of heat, e.g. ΔH, and as such, cold water discharges are treated the same as hot water discharges, I think, for obvious reasons. The temperature of Liquid Nitrogen is –320°F, which is probably a little outside the temperature of any receiving water in the entire planet.
Point Source: This word was included in NPDES rules to exclude things like general erosion and agricultural run-off. Pollution from broadcasted pesticides can make its way into the water without flowing through a single point source (also known as an Outfall). In this case, visual imagery shows that the cryogenic fluid appears to come out of a discharge pipe, as shown below.
Navigable Waters: You could take an entire law school course on the definition of "Navigable Waters," which is more generally defined as "Waters of the United States" (or WOTUS). There are a billion court cases litigating this definition; however, for the sake of this post, know that SpaceX, The FAA, the EPA, and the Army Corps all agree that "delineated wetlands" are considered WOTUS, even if they're not a clearly visible stream, lake or ocean.
The FAA environmental study published last month includes a study showing which areas surrounding Starbase are considered "Wetlands."
I added an overlay of the area (in pink and blue) to RGV's photo and you can see that the liquid Nitrogen was clearly discharged to a Wetland regulated under the Clean Water Act.
Unless a permit was obtained: The Clean Water Act does allow pollution to be discharged into US Waters! But it requires a NPDES permit. Does SpaceX have a permit to discharge industrial process pollutants from a point source? I'm glad you asked because the answer is "no."
TCEQ records show that SpaceX Boca Chica has three active construction stormwater permits. This permit primarily covers discharges associated with dust from construction activities. When dust, dirt and fill material is generated from construction activities, it can get dissolved into rainwater and the suspended solids are then incidentally discharged into the water. The construction permit also narrowly covers a few other discharges, such as water-only fire suppression system testing.
Needless to say, Liquid Nitrogen from Tank Farm or Vessel testing operations is not covered under the Texas Stormwater Construction permit.
Who Cares (LOL)
Putting it all together, the evidence clearly shows that SpaceX violated the Clean Water Act. I'd be grasping at straws to try to guess the legal remedy. Will this kill Starbase? No, probably not. Should SpaceX stop doing stuff like this? Yes.
I'm out of mental energy to try to discuss the long-term implications of the violation. But it's a clear violation of yet another simple, foundational environmental law, and in this Hound's opinion, is just another piece of evidence outlining SpaceX's willful disdain for regulations. That same attitude follows Elon Musk wherever he goes and, like, maybe someone should put a stop to it?