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Threatened With Prosecution, SpaceX Defends Its Activities in South Texas

While SpaceX claimed that a county prosecutor may have been fed misinformation that led to “certain misunderstandings regarding certain facts,” it committed in a June 17 response letter to cooperating with the office and being “a responsible and compliant corporate citizen.”

(CN) --- A Texas district attorney’s threat to prosecute SpaceX over unauthorized road and beach closures and the overzealous actions of its private security guards has the Elon Musk-owned company defending its activities in the remote South Texas beach town of Boca Chica, where it launches rockets into outer space from a site it refers to as “Starbase.”

The complicated relationship between SpaceX and Cameron County, where Musk announced he would donate $30 million to schools and downtown revitalization, has been on full display in recent days after District Attorney Luis Saenz issued a warning letter following a complaint from environmental group Save RGV.

Spurred by multiple concerns from the nonprofit group, the letter from the county’s top prosecutor to SpaceX outlined how the company could be in violation of at least two state laws: obstructing a highway or other passageway, a Class B misdemeanor, and impersonating a public servant, which is punishable by a third-degree felony in the Lone Star State.

The brouhaha took flight when staff from the district attorney’s office went to investigate the environmental group’s complaint when, according to the prosecutor’s office, a SpaceX security guard “immediately approached, stopped, and detained” them before exchanging words and ordering that they return to the highway.

If that conduct were to happen again, the district attorney warned, not only could the individual security guard be subject to prosecution, but the company could open itself up to criminal liability as well.

“While SpaceX is a valued member of our community, this does not authorize SpaceX, its employees, staff, agents, and/or contractors to disregard Texas law,” Saenz wrote to the company June 11.

Days after receiving the letter, SpaceX officials met with staff from the district attorney’s office in an attempt to smooth the relationship. It was at least the second time SpaceX had been warned that some of the actions of its security personnel were “inappropriate” after the county advised it in April of similar violations.

But while SpaceX said the district attorney's office appears to have been fed misinformation that led to "certain misunderstandings regarding certain facts," it committed in a June 17 response letter to cooperating with the office and being "a responsible and compliant corporate citizen."

“While SpaceX has a legal obligation to protect the sensitive and regulated nature of its technology, SpaceX respects the right of the public to use public roads and has trained its security personnel on the importance of not obstructing the road outside of permissible county closures,” wrote Shyamal Patel, SpaceX’s senior director for Starship operations.

In the letter, Patel stressed that the company is required under federal regulations to protect its sensitive technology from unlicensed individuals and that the company must take critical security measures to prevent trespassers from entering SpaceX property and from taking unauthorized photographs of sensitive equipment and operations.

But he also conceded that the security guard who interacted with the district attorney’s staff had only recently been hired and “did not fully understand the important distinction between providing security and access to the public roads as compared to private roads.”

“To be clear, SpaceX does not instruct its security personnel to prohibit the public from accessing public roads unless the road is closed by the county or for other permissible reasons,” Patel wrote to Saenz.

He also stated that SpaceX employees do not carry firearms, a contention disputed by the district attorney, and that all of the company’s uniformed officers have the required state certification, with the exception of three employees whose certifications are pending.

Neither SpaceX nor a spokesperson from the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office responded to a request for comment Friday.


Patel went on to outline a number of actions he said the company would take to ensure a similar interaction does not occur, including reinforced instructions for security personnel that SpaceX does not own public roads, additional training on communications with the public and the addition of more company labeled hats, signage or clothing to identify security personnel as SpaceX security.

Founded in 2002 with the goal of enabling the colonization of Mars through reduced space transportation costs, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX, is one of the world’s only commercial space transportation companies. It is based in Hawthorne, California, and in 2014 announced plans to build a launch site in Boca Chica, along the Gulf of Mexico, about 25 miles from downtown Brownsville.

The site has since expanded from its original scope and become a mecca for space travel and fans of its billionaire founder, an economic boom for the region, and still, a source of mystery.

But the intrigue shrouding the privately-held company controlled by Musk, which is now reportedly valued at $74 billion, is part of its allure. In March, Musk raised eyebrows when he announced on Twitter that he would create his own city --- the city of Starbase.

“From thence to Mars, And hence the Stars,” he added in the tweet.

He later encouraged his 57 million Twitter followers “to please consider moving to Starbase or greater Brownsville/South Padre area in Texas.”

Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. confirmed that SpaceX officially approached the county with interest to incorporate Boca Chica Village into the City of Starbase, Texas, though no formal plans have been released.

Musk himself moved from California to Texas and said in another tweet that his primary home is a $50,000 house in Boca Chica. It was recently reported that the home is a foldable, prefabricated structure with 400 square-feet of living space that the billionaire rents from SpaceX.

But despite its interstellar successes --- SpaceX celebrated the successful landing of a Starship prototype from Boca Chica in May and is planning an orbital spaceflight in July --- legal challenges still persist.

SpaceX is the target of a multi-million federal lawsuit for damages related to a fatal car accident involving a Rio Grande Valley family on the highway outside its launch site. The estate of Carlos Javier Venegas sued the company in March, claiming its failure to update the highway with adequate lighting and warnings caused the accident.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for July 15.

In a May lawsuit filed by SpaceX, the company claims a realty firm violated an agreement by purchasing a property after it agreed to no longer buy property near its Starbase facility. The realty firm is now attempting to sell the property to SpaceX for ten times its value, according to the lawsuit filed in Cameron County.

Patel closed his letter to Saenz, the district attorney, by highlighting actions SpaceX has taken to actively contribute to the improvement of the beaches, including initiating a voluntary beach clean-up program for SpaceX employees on the weekends, facilitating a save the sea turtles campaign and placing trash dumpsters for public use on the highway.

But issues continue to linger. Saenz is inquiring with the Federal Aviation Administration for guidance on how it defines a launch for clarification on how to count road closure times.

The FAA allowed SpaceX authorization to close Boca Chica beaches for up to 300 hours per year for rocket testing activities, but Saenz told the company that it exceeded that limit in the first six months of the year. SpaceX claims it is actually some 74 hours below the limit.

The district attorney’s office has also written to the Texas Department of Transportation about a 135-foot easement at the launch area that appears to have been taken over by SpaceX, according to Save RGV.

While it is unclear what will come of the skirmish between county officials and SpaceX, the company is racing to construct an orbital launch tower in Boca Chica that it hopes will be ready by July.

If successful, the launch next month would be the first orbital spaceflight of its Starship rocket.

Follow Erik De La Garza on Twitter

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