Congressman Carter Interferes At FAA
Press Secretary Mary Carpenter
Congressman Buddy Carter
U.S. House of Representatives 2432 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515-1001
Are you aware that you have mislead the press and the public regarding Congressman Carter’s Amendments to U.S. Code 51 § 50905(b)?
You wrote, “The amendment would not have changed current law or weakened environmental review requirements.” By definition, your statement is not true.
The textbook definition of a legislative Amendment is “Any alteration proposed to be made to a Bill that adds, changes, substitutes, or omits.”
Page 1, Line 6 of Mr. Carter’s Amendment inserts (adds) a significant change to the existing Council of Environmental Quality ("CEQ") regulations. The change clearly weakens the law.
At the request of Spaceport Camden, Mr. Carter wrote this paragraph to amend the regulations as a gift solution to solve the seriously deficient Alternatives section in the DEIS. This section, among others, will be the basis for federal court challenges to a favorable licensing decision.
The problems with Camden’s troubled environmental review begin with the following section of the Code that Mr. Carter proposed to amend. U.S. Code 40CFR §1506.1 places explicit limitations on actions during NEPA process. That section stated at the time of Camden’s application that:
“(a) Until an agency issues a record of decision […], no action concerning the proposal shall be taken which would: (1) … (2) Limit the choice of reasonable alternatives.”
Camden signed the original Memorandum of Understanding with Union Carbide for the spaceport property in 2012, then spent several years developing its strategy. 40CFR §1506.1 was the law in 2012 and remains the law today. Yet, on June 3, 2015, just 79 days before starting the formal EIS process, Chairman Starline signed the $4.8 million Purchase Option Contract with Union Carbide for the spaceport property. Obviously, Camden’s Preferred Action centered around this newly acquired property, and the required EIS Alternative Actions study was purposely limited to that ensure that outcome.
Camden’s predetermined choices also corrupted the requirements of 40CFR §1502.14 requiring the EIS to examine all reasonable alternatives to the proposal. CEQ explains that to determine the scope of alternatives to be considered, the emphasis is on what is "reasonable" rather than on whether the proponent or applicant likes or is itself capable of carrying out a particular alternative. Reasonable alternatives include those that are practical or feasible from the technical and economic standpoint and using common sense, rather than simply desirable from the standpoint of the applicant.
During the interval the FAA has worked on the Camden project, CEQ regulations have required that Camden’s EIS include reasonable alternatives:
Camden unreasonably limited its Alternatives study to only a few sites in Camden County, ignoring other Georgia sites, or unused capacity at existing spaceports. Other sites along the Georgia Coast that could launch directly over the Atlantic would be considered more reasonable from an environmental and safety risks perspective and should have been included. Camden’s Purchase Option Contract essentially limited its selection to the Union Carbide site because they view the spaceport as an opportunity to rehabilitate a property they have unreasonably called “an abandoned asset.” However, even today, Camden does not own the property. The entire property is under a Georgia EPD Environmental Covenant because of years of contaminating activity resulted in the property being littered with both known and unknown hazardous chemical and explosives waste and disposal sites. It is carried as a liability on Union Carbide’s books because it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in EPD mandated maintenance and mitigation costs in perpetuity. It is reasonable that this property is best held by its current multi-billion-dollar corporate owner and is unreasonable that with Mr. Carter's assistance, it becomes owned by his constituents and ultimately, the U.S. taxpayer.
The new CEQ Final Rule published on July 16, 2020 now allows an applicant to make a purchase options. However, until last week, the regulations during the entire prior term of the Camden process were clear that such actions would prejudice various determinations throughout the process. Until the new regulations are legally tested, such a change complicates the Spaceport Camden application which must be ‘grandfathered’ in some way into the new requirements.
Additionally, it is indisputable that excess launch capacity exists in the United States. It is reasonable for the use of that significant capacity to be identified as a reasonable Alternative Action. There is so much capacity at existing spaceports that only 3% of the available launch slots have been used by all U.S. small rocket launches over the past 5 years. The reasonable No Action Alternative (not building Spaceport Camden) would result in no negative safety or environmental impacts to Cumberland Island tourism, Georgia’s coastal marshes, Georgia’s recreational and commercial fishing industries, the Cumberland Island Wilderness, the residents and private property on Cumberland and Little Cumberland Islands, or Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base. The reasonable No Action Alternative would only fail to provide Camden a speculative economic opportunity. It would not deprive the commercial space industry of the opportunity to launch rockets or to reasonably compete in the global market.
When Spaceport Camden ignored all Alternatives outside of Camden County, they created an insurmountable defect in their EIS. Thus, the necessity for Mr. Carter’s proposed changes of existing Environmental regulations:
This paragraph is specifically targeted to solve Camden’s failure to incorporate information that would prove fatal to its application.
Although numerous other examples can be provided, the following example of Mr. Carter’s work shows a direct contradiction with existing and planned changes to long-standing CEQ regulations:
Unless he is proposing that Spaceport Camden qualifies for a less probing Environmental Assessment rather than a full-force Environmental Impact Statement, Mr. Carter admits in his own language in lines 1-4 that even with mitigation, the effects of impacts at Spaceport Camden will be significant.
An example is that Camden has proposed providing an All-Terrain Vehicle (“ATV”) outfitted for firefighting as the primary first responder to a fire on Little Cumberland Island resulting from a launch. Should a fire occur, the ATV would arrive on the Atlantic side of the island on a County-owned landing barge. One, or several, ATV-towable ‘water buffalo’ would be pre-staged on the island. Once connected, the fire-fighting equipment and its 2-man crew would have enough resources for a 10-minute fight against the fire front. The island’s topography is defined by a single, one-lane dirt road, winding through dense Maritime Forest comprised of oak tree canopy and understory that includes gallberry and saw palmettos. An initially small fire can grow to acres in size in a matter of minutes, long before a single apparatus can reach the fire location. If the blaze is located beyond the 100-foot reach of the single ¾”-inch fire hose, the equipment is completely useless. Camden’s proposed fire mitigation strategy to fight a rocket-caused blaze is unsatisfactory under any reasonable interpretation of the word.
Mr. Carter actions politically help Spaceport Camden promoters subject two of Georgia’s valuable, primitive, historic islands to existential risk with implausible mitigations in place to protect public and private property and National Park resources. The purpose is to provide Camden County with a dubious economic development project with marginal prospects for success.
When the Applicant Is At Fault
Mr. Carter’s proposed amendment fails to recognize that the applicant (in this case, Camden County) has been be the cause of significant delay and non-performance of Federal actions. Emails between Camden County and the FAA show that Camden frequently failed to produce timely or adequate technical responses to safety and environmental questions raised by DEIS Commenters and to FAA staff questions. Emails show that the FAA has been frustrated by Camden’s use misleading public statements.
For instance, this extract from a June 8, 2016 email between the FAA’s Stacey Zee and Steve Howard is but one of many identifying numerous Camden-caused delays. At this point, just one year into the process, the project was already 5 months behind schedule due to failures in areas managed by Camden County.
Mr. Carter’s Amendment makes no attempt to hold the applicant accountable for wasting the resources of the FAA or of taxpayers within Mr. Carter’s constituency.
Wrapping it up
Although the FAA’s professional patience has surely been tested by Camden’s actions, human nature suggests that their personnel do not like being pinched between the proper execution of their legal responsibilities and undeserved blame by politicians for Camden’s bad plan or compliance failures. But professional considerations require that the FAA remain mute.
Camden County abused NEPA regulations from the very beginning of the Spaceport Camden project. Spaceport Camden would be the first time that rockets are knowingly launched over the U.S. public, occupied private property, or a historic National Park unit with irreplaceable resources. If anything, Spaceport Camden is testing rules that were promulgated before such risky behavior was ever considered and should be expected to more time. In fact, Camden’s proposed Action must qualify as “one without precedent” which should be expected to take additional time that is anticipated in the latest CEQ Final Rules. Wishful thinking does make the unsuitability of the location go away.
Whether Mr. Carter realizes it or not, his watering down of the regulations is targeted at one of the prominent deficiencies of Camden’s application that is solely Camden’s responsibility and fault.
Opponents are frustrated that years have gone by since the FAA knew that Camden’s spaceport plans were reckless. The Congressman is correct about one thing, though. The FAA should have ended this a few years ago by kicking Camden out the door in mid-2018, latest. Millions of scarce tax dollars could have benefited Camden citizens rather than far-flung consultants, lobbyists, and promoters. The FAA could have marshalled its limited resources to properly monitor other licenses that are in trouble. What has been needed is an FAA that is not conflicted by a dual mandate to simultaneously promote the shape-shifting rocket industry and to protect the public from dangerous actions. Congressman Carter should not be removing obstacles intended to prevent Georgia's equivalent to a "Bridge to Nowhere."
Camden-induced delays and narrow political interests are the only thing keeping the project alive. I’ve attached a recent letter to the editor outlining recent verification in an FAA environmental Assessment for small rockets that shows how grossly exaggerated are the jobs’ claims made by spaceport promoters. Camden has offered nothing but speculation and meaningless economic references supporting the value of Spaceport Camden to Georgia, the 1st District, and especially, to Camden County.
Mr. Carter also represents those of us who practice conservative economic values, have extensive business-building and finance backgrounds, and who treasure the unique features of our coastal marshes and primitive islands. We also read and understand the law and expect Mr. Carter to honor its letter, but also its intent, rather than to modify the law for special interests.
We hope an accelerated deadline will finally put this project out of our misery.
Please publicly acknowledge that Mr. Carter’s proposed Amendment fundamentally changes the intent of long-standing environmental law that all other licensed spaceports were able to meet.