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Action Alert! Support Coastal Commission Staff’s Recommended Objection to SpaceX Launch Increases at Vandenberg

Several years ago, the first SpaceX launches off California’s Ventura County coast at Vandenberg Space Force Base were a novelty. People lined the beaches to watch the rocket launch, YouTubers made videos of the experience and the excitement of commercial launches prevailed.

Now, as SpaceX looks to rapidly increase the number of launches from 6 per year to 36 per year and soon up to 100 per year at Vandenberg, these activities are being carefully scrutinized. As the novelty wears off, noise complaints and concerns over increased impacts to wildlife and marine debris are surfacing. SpaceX’s activities in Texas are also raising serious concerns.

The California Coastal Commission (“Commission”) has held several hearings on the Department of the Air Force (“DAF”) U.S. Space Force’s proposal to increase SpaceX’s launch activities at Vandenberg. 

When the Commission, a state agency, reviews an “application” or Consistency Determination  from a federal agency, such as the DAF, the state’s authority is different and somewhat constrained when compared to the Commission’s typical coastal development permit authority for all other applicants. The law provides that federal agency activities must be carried out in a manner consistent to the maximum extent practicable with state policies. The Commission can concur with a federal agency’s consistency determination, conditionally concur, or object. A concurrence is similar to “approval”, though not exactly.

The launch proposal activities were originally reviewed by the Commission in May 2023, and the Commission concurred with the DAF’s Negative Determination. The concurrence has since been “reopened” since it came to light that the project was being carried out differently than originally described in the initial negative determination; launches were causing more beach closures than predicted at Jalama Beach Park and nearby popular beaches.

In April 2024, this proposal went to a hearing before the Commission. Staff originally recommended “concurrence” with SpaceX’s proposed activities. The concurrence detailed new mitigation measures to avoid impacts to beach access. However, due to concerns about the resource impacts and extent of the Commission’s authority, the item was postponed for a future hearing to gather more information. 

Fast forward to June 2024. Commission staff are now recommending the Commission “object” to the Negative Determination for the launch increases! The reasons are numerous and are primarily based on lack of information from DAF regarding:

  • Why the proposed SpaceX launches should be considered a federal agency activity; 
  • Specifics on what areas are being affected by sonic booms and how; 
  • What sensitive species and habitats are known to inhabit these areas and how they are being affected; 
  • How the results of biological monitoring efforts support the Air Force’s conclusions that SpaceX launches are not adversely affecting sensitive species and habitats; 
  • Whether the proposed marine debris program is effectively mitigating for the amount and type of debris generated from launches; 
  • Whether the type and intensity of artificial night lighting at the launch complex is adversely affecting sensitive species and habitats. 

These objections are substantial and get at the heart of many of the public’s concerns. People across multiple surrounding counties are sick of the sonic booms. A monarch butterfly habitat sits adjacent to the launch site and the impacts are not currently monitored. Marine debris is not adequately mitigated for the type of toxic waste being left behind (batteries). New seabird monitoring data shows potential species level impacts. The public spoke up and our voices are being heard!

Of primary concern for Surfrider is impacts to coastal access at Jalama Beach County Park and nearby beaches. The activities could result in 13 beach closures per year. Vandenberg has suggested that they will supply a shuttle for campers at Jalama to leave the park during nighttime launches and return - this sounds like a major inconvenience that may deter people from camping there. 

The objection also questions who the applicant should be - Vandenberg Space Force Base or SpaceX, given that the vast majority of the launches are to place SpaceX’s Starlink satellites into orbit, and not to serve Department of Defense contracts. If SpaceX is required to be the applicant, as a private commercial entity, they would be required to obtain a Coastal Development Permit and the Commission would have more authority to suggest mitigation measures to offset impacts to resources such as sensitive species and public access.

The Commission needs your support to stand up to the Air Force and SpaceX. Please attend the Coastal Commission meeting next week to support staff’s recommendation of “Objection” and make sure commercial launch activities are carefully regulated. 

  • 🗓️ WHEN: Wednesday June 12
  • 📍 WHERE: Coastal Commission Hearing (virtually over Zoom or in-person in San Rafael - details here)
  • 📣 HOW: Submit a speaker slip for item 10a on Wednesday and prepare comments for up to 2 minutes. 
  • Contact us if you need guidance -

Let's ensure that any decisions made are in the best interest of our coast!

Here are some sample talking points:

  • I support the staff recommendation of objection to SpaceX launch increases at Vandenberg.
  • There is too much that we don’t know! 
  • The launches should increase at a much slower pace, allowing us to gather the monitoring data needed to avoid impacts to marine life.
  • Public access impacts must be carefully addressed and mitigated. This is a stretch of coast that has very few access points. Those we do have must be safeguarded.
  • More information is needed on why sonic booms are being felt in the surrounding counties. There is not enough information to be able to understand or predict the true extent of sonic booms and their impacts to coastal resources and nearby communities.
  • [personal stories are helpful, especially if you are personally impacted!].