SAVANNAH, Ga. — Opponents of a proposed commercial missile launch pad on the coast of Georgia are asking a court to throw out the project’s government permit because the Federal Aviation Administration has not properly assessed the risks of firing missiles over homes and a barrier island rated popular with tourists.
Attorneys at the Southern Environmental Law Center have filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court to revoke the launch site operator license that the FAA granted to the planned Spaceport Camden in December. Officials in coastal Camden County have spent more than $10 million building a spaceport for the past decade to launch satellites into orbit.
The proposed flight path would send missiles over Little Cumberland Island, which has about 40 private residences, and neighboring Cumberland Island, a federally protected wilderness visited by about 60,000 tourists yearly. Residents and the National Park Service have said they fear explosive misfires raining fiery debris could lead to wildfires near homes and people.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of homeowners and conservation groups says the FAA allowed provincial officials to minimize potential security risks by basing their license application on a hypothetical missile “that doesn’t exist” and is smaller than current commercial missiles. It says the FAA has not followed its policy calling for such “unproven” rockets to be held to a higher standard.
“The FAA’s decision to grant a permit for a location where missiles would be launched over people, homes, and Cumberland Island National Seashore…” said the lawsuit, filed May 19 in the District of Columbia.
The lawsuit also alleges that a top FAA official privately told opponents of Spaceport Camden in March 2019 that he doubted the project would succeed.
The document says a group of homeowners from Little Cumberland Island traveled to Washington to meet with FAA officials, including Wayne Monteith, who was then the bureau’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation. The lawsuit says Monteith told the group “Spaceport Camden was not a commercially viable launch site and that ‘some spaceports just want to sell hats and T-shirts’.”
FAA spokesman Steve Kulm said the agency will not comment on pending lawsuits on Thursday. John Simpson, a spokesperson for the Spaceport Camden project, did not immediately respond to an email.
Monteith no longer works for the FAA and is not named a defendant in the lawsuit. Reached by phone, Monteith’s wife said he was traveling on Thursday. He did not immediately return a message asking for comment.
In Camden County, a community of 55,000 people on the Georgia-Florida line, commissioners have long argued that a spaceport would generate economic growth through rocket launches and attract related industries and tourists.
Opponents say the plans to build the spaceport on an industrial lot formerly used to produce pesticides and munitions pose potential environmental and safety hazards that outweigh the economic benefits.
The FAA’s final environmental impact statement on Spaceport Camden concluded that provincial officials had submitted an “adequate and appropriate” plan for dealing with fires and other emergencies that could arise from rocket launches.
However, the FAA noted that granting the county’s license to operate a spaceport in December would require a different and more comprehensive assessment before any missiles could be launched. The agency stressed in a letter that “no result is guaranteed”.
In March, opponents forced a referendum on the project after collecting more than 3,500 petition signatures from registered voters who said they wanted the spaceport on the ballot.
The result was a major defeat for the spaceport. The final count showed that 72% of voters sided with abandoning the project by overturning the commissioners’ previous decision to buy land for the spaceport.
County officials have given no indication that they intend to leave the spaceport. Just days after the referendum, they voted to continue buying property for the project. Meanwhile, commissioners are pending in Georgia seeking annulment of the referendum.