FAA fast tracks EIS, will not seek comments

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The Federal Aviation Administration has decided that it will not seek additional public comments as the result of Spaceport Camden's amended launch site operator’s license application and will apparently fast track the licensing decision.   The agency is using federal executive orders...

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The Federal Aviation Administration has decided that it will not seek additional public comments as the result of Spaceport Camden's amended launch site operator’s license application and will apparently fast track the licensing decision.  

The agency is using federal executive orders related to environmental policy as a basis for combining and speeding up the timeline for issuing a final environmental impact statement (EIS) and record of decision. 

Camden County administrator Steve Howard, project lead, said "We are now at T-1" with the recent FAA announcement.

"In the 1960s, Camden County was declared the Gateway to Space and with the FAA announcement. Camden will retain that title again in 2021," he added. 

Wayne Monteith, associate administrator of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, announced in a letter on Friday, Sept. 11, that the agency had reversed earlier plans to release a revised draft EIS for a 45-day public review and comment period in or around January 2021. Instead a final EIS and record of decision will be issued in March 2021. 

"... The revised analyses have confirmed that all potential environmental impacts of the small-lift launch vehicles are subsumed within the potential impacts of the medium-large lift class vehicle as described in Draft EIS, issued in March 2018," Monteith said. 

The FAA collected public comments on the county's launch site operator's license from November 2015 to January 2016 when they county first began its quest to establish a commercial spaceport at the east end of Harrietts Bluff. The FAA believes those are still an adequate representation of citizens’ concerns. 

Camden County amended its application in December 2019 by narrowing its focus from medium-large rockets to small-medium rockets and removing the booster flyback component of the application. The FAA suspended the decision period to consider the new application and amend the draft EIS to reflect the new specifications. 

One part of the application that was not known at the onset of the project was the possibility that drones could be used for surveillance related to rocket launches. Dick Parker, a property owner on Little Cumberland Island just offshore from the site, said he feels the recent FAA decision does deprive him of an opportunity to speak about that and other concerns he has about the project. 

"Frankly, it’s discouraging when the government tells the public, 'We don’t want your input.' But that’s the purpose of this letter from the FAA," Parker said. 

He and others who live in the area of the proposed launch site are concerned that the county use tax dollars to pressure the FAA into making decisions like the one announced Friday. 

  "Mr. Starline’s and Mr. Howard’s new plan is to launch small rockets, which they say fail between three and eight times more often than the rockets in the original application," Parker said. "The FAA was rightly concerned about the higher failure rate and called for a 45-day public review and comment period on a revised draft environmental impact statement. After months of pressure from our county’s lobbyists and lawyers in Washington, they have now done a 180 and shut citizens out of the conversation."

Monteith's letter pointed to the federal Executive Order 13927 on "accelerating the nation’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 emergency by expediting infrastructure investments and other activities," issued on June 4, 2020. It directs the FAA and other executive branch agencies to "take all appropriate steps to use their lawful emergency authorities and other authorities to respond to the national emergency and to facilitate the nation’s economic recovery" and to “take all reasonable measures to speed infrastructure investments and to speed other actions in addition to such investments that will strengthen the economy and return Americans to work, while providing appropriate protection for public health and safety, natural resources, and the environment, as required by law." 

He said the executive order specifically directs all federal agencies to use, to the fullest extent possible and consistent with applicable law, emergency procedures, statutory exemptions, categorical exclusions, analyses that have already been completed, and concise and focused analyses, consistent with National Environmental Policy Act and Councils on Environmental Quality standards and procedures.

"The FAA believes that expediting the environmental review process for Spaceport Camden furthers the interests of Executive Order 13927," Monteith said in his letter. "The FAA has therefore revised its approach and will issue a Final EIS without an additional public comment period." 

The agency also intends to use a combined EIS/record of decision process authorized by federal law. According to the letter, the final EIS will address updates to the application and will incorporate responses to all comments received on the 2018 draft EIS. The final EIS and record of decision are expected to be released in March 2021.

Monteith noted the county's application is not the only requirement for launching rockets since space operators also will be required to license individual launches. 

"The final EIS addresses Camden’s proposed launch site operations," he said. "The FAA will perform additional NEPA analyses for any future launch vehicle operators seeking to operate from Spaceport Camden. This additional analysis would address the potential impacts of the launch of their specific vehicle."  

Alex Kearns of the St. Marys Earthkeepers said she was disappointed by the decision and feels the EIS is "deeply flawed." 

"I would like to say that I'm shocked by the FAA's decision to issue the Final EIS — after that complete farce of a draft EIS — without allowing the public to comment but, sadly, I'm not. Executive Order 13927 effectively muzzles the people and denies them the opportunity to protect their own homes, lands, and communities," she said.