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Draft EIS heightens landowner’s concerns about property rights

For the private property owners of Little Cumberland Island, the draft environmental impact statement for Spaceport Camden has done little to alleviate their concerns about launch safety.   

The result of more than two years of data collection and research about the site, the EIS is a required part of Camden County’s quest to license a commercial spaceport at Harrietts Bluff. 

The Federal Aviation Administration, which conducts the EIS through contractors, is collecting comments on the draft through mid May. 

Although the draft EIS indicates the site is suitable for the type of launches Camden is proposing, each individual launch will have to be scrutinized and run through a risk analysis before the FAA can issue a license to proceed. 

Kevin Lang, an Athens attorney whose family owns property on Little Cumberland, and some of his fellow landowners are questioning how Camden County can meet the necessary thresholds to safely conduct a launch without somehow restricting their property ownership rights or worse, putting their lives and property in peril. 

Now that the draft EIS has been released and risk assessments have been conducted, they say the county is denying access to the raw data that they used for those calculations. Lang said without the data inputs, such as how many people could be present on the day of a launch, they can’t even double-check the math.

“How do you evaluate the safety of a spaceport if you can’t see what happens when a rocket explodes?” Lang asked. 

He said spaceport operations would be in direct conflict with the Little Cumberland Island homeowners association’s agreement with the U.S. Department of Interior to conserve and protect the island.  

“The association takes this obligation very seriously, and we don’t think allowing the island to be put at risk from exploding rockets is consistent with that obligation,” he said. 

“Authorized persons”

The Spaceport Camden EIS states the landowners would be deemed “authorized persons” during launches so that they could remain on the island during launches.

Lang and others feel that this is a deliberate attempt by the county to sidestep the law in a way that would put their lives and property at risk. He also said there was no precedent for using the term “authorized persons” to exclude landowners who may choose to be on their property at the time of the launch.  

By comparison, the launch pad for SpaceX’s commercial spaceport in Brownsville, Texas, is just 2 miles from the homes at Boca Chica Beach. Those homes are located in the closure area near the launch control center, but are not overflown by the rockets.

According to the EIS for Brownsville, area homeowners are named among “authorized persons” who will be allowed access to their homes during launches via security checkpoints. 

“Government personnel, SpaceX personnel, emergency personnel, and anyone with property beyond this soft checkpoint could pass, but the general public would be denied access. The second checkpoint would be a hard checkpoint, just west of the control center area, which is a ‘no pass’ area determined by the FAA-approved hazard area …” the EIS states.

SpaceX plans to launch rockets as big as the Falcon Heavy in Brownsville, whereas Camden County is seeking permission to launch small to medium rockets. 

Lang said the Brownsville site is indeed very different from Camden, but the land hazard areas would be located in the same areas, relative to the launch pad.

“The second checkpoint … (as a) no-pass for anyone keeps people out of the land hazard area,” Lang stated in an email to the Tribune & Georgian this week. “In Boca Chica, the land hazard areas are basically areas to the sides and the rear of the launch pad, as the rockets fly up and then out over open ocean. The land hazard area around the launch pad is set to contain the debris from an exploding rocket that is ascending over the pad.”

Similarly, Lang said he assumes that the same areas will be closed during launches from Camden.  

“Because rockets launched from Spaceport Camden will travel over Little Cumberland Island and Cumberland Island, there will be land hazard areas on both Little Cumberland Island and Cumberland Island. You can see these land hazard areas in the diagrams that are included in the draft EIS,” Lang said.  

According to news articles in Boca Chica, SpaceX has purchased some of those beach homes. Lang further speculates that the company may also be negotiating agreements with individual property owners, but said that strategy would not work with him or his neighbors on Little Cumberland. 

Others weigh in

The county does believe it can meet the safety standards required in federal commercial spaceflight regulations. 

Andrew Nelson, a county consultant, has dismissed those assumptions in the past through letters to the editor, county meetings and testimony at state legislative hearings. He also said the island landowners’ conclusions about exclusion zones for Spaceport Camden launches and launches elsewhere were not direct comparisons.

“Federal regulations and enabling legislation recognize that private property (and populations of people) will be overflown by rockets, and that there is risk of damage to private property; however, this risk has been generally acceptable given the importance of commercial launch capabilities to the United States national interest,” said Nelson to a written statement to the Tribune & Georgian in late 2017. 

He continued, “Congress and the executive branch have made provisions for replacement or repair of private property through the required carriage of insurance by launch and launch site operators up to the maximum probable loss (MPL) as calculated by the FAA for a specific launch, and then U.S. government coverage of damages above the MPL to approximately $3 billion (see 51 U.S. Code § 50915).”

In a March 28 email to one of the landowners who had questioned the term, FAA project lead Stacey Zee explained that it did not originate with the FAA. 

“The term ‘authorized persons,’ as used in the (draft) EIS, is a term that Camden has used to describe individuals who could remain in certain areas on Cumberland Island and Little Cumberland Island during operations at the proposed launch site. It is not a term used anywhere in FAA regulations,” she wrote.

However, Zee added, the county would still have to meet commercial flight regulations that say a launch operator may initiate flight only if the risk to any individual member of the public does not exceed a casualty expectation of one in one million per launch for each hazard.  

“Therefore, a launch operator could not conduct a licensed launch from Camden if the risk to any member of the public, including those who remain on Cumberland Island and Little Cumberland Island, did not meet this requirement,” Zee added.

Assessing the risk 

During the time that the FAA was conducting the EIS, the county also hired its own contractor to conduct a risk assessment on the proposed launch trajectories. Lang said the county recently denied the private landowners’ requests to see the raw data used in those assessments. 

Camden County cited the exemption to the Georgia Open Records Act that allows pending real estate transactions, and related documents, to be kept confidential until after the transaction is final. Because Camden has a purchase option on the spaceport property, it is still a pending transaction.  

An attorney from the Southern Environmental Law Center argued in a March 28 letter to county attorney John Myers that the denial based on the document containing an “engineering or feasibility estimate” violates the spirit of the law. 

“In this case, the Camden County Joint Development Authority and Union Carbide Corporation specifically define the ‘due diligence study’ for the proposed spaceport property as the ‘investigation and appraisal of the property.’ The hazard analysis is not an ‘investigation’ or an ‘appraisal” of ‘the property.’ Nor does the hazard analysis contain engineering or feasibility estimates for improvements to the property,” wrote SELC staff attorney April Lipscomb.

Lipscomb noted that the act allows for the redaction of exempted information so that those risk calculations, which are not specifically noted in the exemption, could be released. 

“Under Camden County’s theory, the county would be authorized to withhold all public documents concerning the proposed spaceport because it has not yet purchased the property,” she wrote to Myers.

The attorney also warned that the county could not protect public information simply because it was in the custody of a contractor or another government agency. 

“… Camden County taxpayers and electorate should have access to as much information as possible to determine whether moving forward with this project is a sound use of their money and county resources,” Lipscomb wrote to Myers. “Indeed, GORA was enacted to allow the public to ‘evaluate the expenditure of public funds.’ We are aware of significant public concern about the results of this hazard analysis and believe the public should have access to it as soon as possible, considering that the content likely sheds light on the public health and welfare concerns mentioned above.”

Lang said the group has requested those documented from other parties, but have not yet gotten responses. He also consulted Georgia attorney general’s office on March 29 regarding the denial. 

“The wording of the exemption is quite broad (‘real estate appraisals, engineering or feasibility estimates or other records made for or by the state or a local agency relative to the acquisition of real property’) and it would not be appropriate for us to offer an opinion on whether that exemption applies to a document that we have not seen,” wrote assistant attorney general Jennifer Colengelo in an April 2 email. 

She also noted that Lang could bring a court action, which would allow a judge to privately review the document in question and make a ruling on whether it should be released.  

Lang said he believes they will eventually prevail because these risk assessments involve private properties like his, not just the property the county wants to buy. 

“It is a very relevant piece of this that they should have to share with everybody,” he said.

He said he and other coastal landowners have been asking the county for the last two years how a launch failure would affect their properties. 

“We are the ones downrange who are going to have fiery debris raining down on us if one of these rockets explodes,” Lang said. “How can the public be expected to evaluate whether a spaceport is a good thing for a coastal environment if they haven’t been told what happens when a rocket explodes and what chemicals gets released and how fragments get picked up?”

The group is set to meet with the FAA at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, April 11, in the county commissioners’ chambers in Woodbine to further explore the issue of “authorized persons” and other issues affecting the island residents. The meeting is open to the public.

Tribune & Georgian

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