Rockets and rage: Great Lakes proposal proves divisive

By Hannah Northey, E.A. Crunden | 05/19/2022 01:33 PM EDT

A plan to build rocket launch sites in Michigan has raised concerns about explosions contaminating Lake Superior and chemicals seeping into drinking water supplies.

Earth from space collage with diagrams of spacecraft.

Proponents of the Michigan Launch Initiative want to build a commercial spaceflight hub in Michigan, including one site along the pristine shores of Lake Superior. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (illustration); NASA (Earth) Freepik (globe sketches); Michigan Spaceport Site Selection and Feasibility Study (diagrams and map)

A bid to build rocket launch sites in Michigan — including along the pristine shorelines of Lake Superior and an area known to be contaminated with “forever chemicals” — is fueling concern about environmental harm to the Great Lakes, the nation’s largest source of surface fresh water.

At issue is the so-called Michigan Launch Initiative, a proposal to build a command center and two rocket launching sites: One vertical launch site in Marquette County in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula along Lake Superior, and a second horizontal launch site to be built on part of the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport, a site known to be contaminated and proposed for Superfund listing. A third facility, a control and command center, would be built near Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan.

Proponents of the project argue it will create a hub of commercial spaceflight and supporting industries that will generate hundreds of jobs and birth a unique epicenter of space activity between the United States and Canada conveniently near one of the largest automotive industry centers in the nation. The project is backed by a slew of engineering, tech and manufacturing interests in the space and aerospace sectors that belong to the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association, or MAMA, which is lobbying to bring the aerospace manufacturing industry to the state.


A spokesperson for MAMA said the permitting process has begun for the first horizontal launch site and money is being raised for all three locations, but declined to provide additional comments or details when repeatedly asked about possible environmental concerns or local opposition.

“We will need to secure permits for all three locations, which we intend to do sequentially,” Mary Ann Sabo, president of a public relations firm, Sabo Public Relations LLC, which is representing MAMA, wrote in an email.

Yet the multiprong project, recently featured in The New Yorker, has raised questions about everything from rocket explosions contaminating Lake Superior to chemicals seeping into drinking water supplies.

Michigan residents who banded together to fight one of the proposed launch sites in an area called Granot Loma in the state’s Upper Peninsula on Lake Superior say developers face challenges, from local zoning issues to federal environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The group, Citizens for a Safe and Clean Lake Superior, was formed two years ago by Dennis Ferraro, a former trial lawyer from Chicago who retired in 2015 and now lives about 2 miles away from the proposed Granot Loma site.

Today, Ferraro’s concerns range from the project’s effect on nearby wetlands and construction on fragile sandstone formations, to noise pollution and uncertainty over which endangered or threatened species are located in the region. Ferraro in an interview ticked off a list of nearby trails, camps and kayaking hot spots along Lake Superior’s pristine shorelines before pointing to explosions at other spaceports in states like Alaska known for generating unsafe debris and contaminating soil.

“If one of these rockets exploded off of the pad,” said Ferraro, “it would pollute the lake as well as the surrounding environment. And [the city of] Marquette draws its drinking water from Lake Superior.”

Betting on NEPA

A number of environmental concerns could come down to environmental permitting reviews —and exactly how much scrutiny the project receives.

The proposed sites will need to undergo a multiagency NEPA review with the Federal Aviation Administration as the lead agency on the assessment. That could still lead to a robust review, but critics worry that the FAA may not be as up to the task as other agencies.

“They’re not a primary environment and natural resource agency and they’re more inclined to take industry’s side of things, with less scrutiny and questioning that may occur if, for instance, EPA was the lead agency,” said Nicholas Schroeck, an environmental law professor at the University of Detroit.

An FAA spokesperson said the agency has not yet received an application for a Michigan spaceport license. Should an application arrive, the spokesperson said it will need to comply with a NEPA review as part of the FAA licensing process.

Other players, like Michigan’s environmental department and the local zoning board, are also likely to take on significant roles in deciding whether the project moves along.

Groups like Citizens for a Safe and Clean Lake Superior say details are sparse, yet public engagement and providing the scope of the projects and plans will be critical.

A feasibility study on MAMA’s website that was prepared by the engineering consultant Kimley-Horn of Michigan Inc. points to environmental reviews and local opposition as possible areas of concern, noting that the development of a greenfield vertical launch complex will require an environmental impact statement led by the FAA.

Reviews for new vertical launch complexes have historically taken up to five years or more, they wrote, and can be costly. The consultants recommended significant planning to ensure potential areas of concern are addressed early and plenty of public engagement and awareness campaigns throughout the project.

“During the environmental review phase, it is common for opposition to form against the development of the launch sites and for the process to stall,” they wrote.

‘So many questions’

Worries about everything from water contamination to explosions and flying rocket parts underpin much of the pushback to MAMA’s proposal.

Some components will be built on wetlands, a process critics assert could compromise those areas. Such efforts might also disturb the lake, where erosion is already occurring due to climate change.

“I would say I have a healthy dose of skepticism,” said Schroeck, regarding the site’s possible implications. “On the scale of harmful things to the environment, is this the No. 1 concern? No, it’s not. But there’s still so many questions about this launch site and how they’d use it.”

Schroeck nodded to a number of issues that community opponents have highlighted, especially in the area around the shores of Lake Superior. Cait Sternberg, a spokesperson for Citizens for a Safe and Clean Lake Superior, said the group is mostly concerned about the Granot Loma site and construction and clear-cutting of riparian areas that could disturb the habitats of wildlife and vegetation, potentially with dire consequences. The group has also warned the project could force evacuations, destroy wetlands and threaten critical habitats.

A number of imperiled or vulnerable plants might be affected, as well as wolves, birds, bats, Canadian lynx, moose, bears and deer, some of which are threatened or endangered. Noise and sight pollution remain additional burdens on a fragile ecosystem, and Schroeck underscored those potential impacts. Another concern is material coming off rockets that explode, all of which would result in material falling into the lake, said Sternberg.

Other threats are more distinctly toxic in nature. The former Wurtsmith Air Force Base is already one of the country’s most notoriously PFAS-contaminated sites, due to the legacy use of firefighting foam. Pollution from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances has enraged locals who have spent years calling for government aid (E&E Daily, Dec. 10, 2021). Meanwhile, PFAS are already known to pollute the Great Lakes at elevated levels around military sites (Greenwire, Aug. 31, 2021).

Some community advocates believe the planned rocket site could be helpful to their cause, encouraging cleanup of the existing contamination. But others worry it could just make the problem worse. Firefighting foam in particular is commonly used in training exercises around such facilities. Any preparation for a possible crisis could involve PFAS-laden products, releasing more of the notorious chemicals into the surrounding area.

“The concern would be that if they’re locating planes there, that have to take off and land from that facility … you’re going to have firefighting capabilities there,” said Schroeck, adding: “You’d think part of that would include cleanup. But I’m not convinced that would actually happen.”

Rockets also rely on propellants and produce significant emissions, with some launches producing 200 to 300 tons of carbon dioxide for even a small flight of four passengers. The fuels emit chemicals into the air, which can linger for several years.

MAMA says the rockets will run on a mix of kerosene and liquid oxygen, which has alarmed residents. Kerosene-fueled rockets can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and leave black carbon — also called soot — in the atmosphere. Those issues may be imperiling the ozone layer, even though the impacts are not necessarily felt in the immediate launch area on the ground.

Other risks include the release of lithium polymer batteries to save weight as rockets rise toward the sky. They are either incinerated or land on the ground, possibly in the water. And another controversial pollutant associated with rockets is perchlorate, long a source of contention for environmental and public health groups.

“A large contamination event around perchlorate can spread and can contaminate huge amounts of water,” said Erik Olson, a senior strategic director focusing on health and food for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Whether perchlorate is a major risk associated with what is being proposed in Michigan is unclear. But the chemical has been found around NASA sites and moves quickly in water. The sheer size of Lake Superior would likely limit any minor contamination, but a major accident could lead to significant problems, Olson said.

EPA declined in early April to regulate perchlorate in drinking water despite its health implications. At the time, the agency noted contamination was typically limited to areas where rockets and fireworks have impacted drinking water (Greenwire, April 1).

Any contamination that enters the Great Lakes could have long-running consequences. As vast bodies of fresh water, the lakes often retain toxic substances for lengthy periods of time. Mercury associated with the fur trade in the 18th century can still be found in Lake Superior. And polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, remain in the Great Lakes despite being phased out decades ago.

“The unique character of freshwater ecosystems, particularly Lake Superior because it’s colder,” said Schroeck, “merits more study and caution.”

A national trend

The controversy in Michigan echoes other contentious projects.

In Camden County, Ga., for example, plans to build a rocket launch pad were rejected by voters earlier this year. Despite $10.3 million in investments and a decade-long effort by officials, a notable majority of residents shot down the proposal via a referendum. Proponents had argued the site would bring economic benefits, but community members voiced concerns over safety and environmental hazards.

Another particularly heated back-and-forth has played out in Boca Chica, a Texas border town sitting on top of the Gulf of Mexico. That unincorporated village, home to the SpaceX Starbase tracking station, is one billionaire Elon Musk wants to turn into a space travel hub.

But much like Michigan, those plans have met with resistance. Residents have complained that launches have resulted in broken windows and debris, along with fires and other problems including highway closures. SpaceX has also closed off access to the area’s public beach, a big draw for locals.

Broader environmental concerns also loom large. The group Save RGV, named for the Rio Grande Valley where Boca Chica is located, is worried about impacts to wetlands and wildlife. The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, South Bay Coastal Preserve and Boca Chica State Park are all nearby and home to deeply sensitive ecosystems.

Adherence to NEPA and a “faulty analysis” from FAA have raised alarm bells for locals, as have other government missteps in the largely Spanish-speaking area. Residents say officials have done little to make public hearings accessible and have not made the FAA analysis available in Spanish, despite provisions under the Civil Rights Act.

“SpaceX has not demonstrated required avoidance and minimization of impacts to aquatic habitats. They have not demonstrated required consideration of alternatives,” the group wrote in its November 2021 comments on FAA’s programmatic environmental assessment for the site.

Closing the beach, meanwhile, poses an environmental justice issue according to Save RGV. “For many Hispanic and low-income residents of Brownsville, Boca Chica is ‘their’ beach, as it is closer than the beaches on South Padre Island,” they argued, adding the closures “would result in disproportionately high and adverse impacts to lower-income Indigenous populations who for generations have relied on access to the waters for economic and familial subsistence.”

Those concerns reflect some of the hurdles that await any future rocket launch sites across the country. Opponents of the initiative in Michigan emphasized that, for them, there are simply too many risks to justify the project.

Ferraro, who dreamed of living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula after visiting the area as a child, said he has no plans of leaving even if the rocket launch is built. He is instead focusing on opposing the project in public, speaking at farmers’ markets, Rotary Club meetings and community gatherings, and putting up “Stop the Rocket” billboards and lawn signs.

In an interview, Ferraro ticked off a lengthy list of natural wonders and locations within miles of the site, including sandy beaches; massive cliffs; world-class trout fishing; and places like the Echo Lake, a 480-acre nature preserve with high bluffs of exposed granite, forests, wetlands and high rock ponds that empty into Lake Superior, the deepest and coldest of the Great Lakes.

“When they start shooting those rockets off, it’s going to give a whole new meaning to the term Echo Lake,” said Ferraro.