Environmental issues surrounding the proposed Marquette spaceport

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Blog post written by Mindy Kantola:

The development of a commercial spaceport near a quiet historic lodge along the southern shore of Lake Superior would bring permanent and unnecessary industrial impacts to a rural, Northwoods forested area surrounded by residences, unique sensitive habitats, and the world’s largest freshwater lake. The Granot Loma Lodge structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and embodies a large chapter of local Marquette history. A portion of the property could be targeted as a potential vertical spaceport location for small to midsize rockets which presents many concerns.

The small commercial rocket industry

When rocket launches fail there is a risk of soil and water contamination due to the release of toxins, and at this point in small commercial rocket development, there is a fairly good chance they will fail regularly. Small rockets currently have a 26% failure rate according to launch records of Rocket Lab’s Electron and Astra Rockets 1, 2, and 3; these records begin with the first launch of the Electron in 2017 and go through April 2021 (Space Launch Report). The initial launch of an Astra rocket from Kodiak Island, AK, in 2018 resulted in the rocket malfunctioning, damage to the spaceport, and remediation work which included sending more than 200 tons of soil for decontamination (New Scientist 2019). The soil was heated to 315 °C to vaporize residual hydrocarbons, then a thermal oxidizer subjected the gases to temperatures of 870 °C. Rocket launches fail regularly, and sometimes slight technical issues lead to explosive failures (Space 2020). The Astra rocket launch record was 0/2 for successes/attempts to launch the Astra Rocket 3 in 2020 due to an electrical connection failure and improper propellant mixture (Space Launch Report 2020).

Not only are rocket launches potentially hazardous during a launch failure, but also due to the release of components and debris in-flight that enter the atmosphere and/or free-fall to earth in an uncontrolled manner (CNBC 2020). Regular launches at large spaceport complexes have been shown to impact wildlife due to the frequent release of heavy metals during flight. One study on the alligators near Kennedy Space Center showed that nearby gators have higher levels of heavy metals, including lithium, nickel and mercury, in their livers than alligators from two other parts of Florida (Horai et al. 2014).

Furthermore, even if all goes well, the vast majority of rocket launch missions leave discarded components (aka “space junk”) to orbit in Earth indefinitely with no attempt at recovery or proper disposal (NASA 2016). NASA estimates that humans have discarded over 20,000 pieces of space junk larger than a softball that are currently orbiting earth (NASA 2013). Small rockets are designed to release components mid-flight, which simply fall back to the earth’s surface and generally land in the ocean. This is supposedly for safety, but disregards any lasting impacts to the ecosystem surrounding the launch site.

By design, small rockets release components in stages which are intended to incinerate or fall back to the Earth’s surface below. The release of components during frequent launches would ultimately result in debris, particulate, and propellant-covered rocket component accumulation in Lake Superior. In New Zealand, launch records show that rocket components have occasionally been recovered from their ocean-landings. However, it is more likely that no attempt to recover the parts is made.

MAMA’s proposed vertical launch location on Lake Superior

The Explorer Solutions Report and analysis of Granot Loma as a potential commercial spaceport describes the Electron rocket by Rocket Lab as the chosen rocket for launches at the hypothetical Marquette Spaceport. By design, at 2.5 minutes after lift-off, the Electron rocket drops its first stage which contains nine spent rocket engines and the largest part of the rocket body. These components would be contaminated with kerosene propellant residue. Hypothetically, when this first stage is dropped from the rocket during a successful launch, it would either land in Lake Superior or somewhere in Ontario.  Although unlikely, there could be a recovery mission to retrieve the parts using a helicopter, however, even if some parts of the rocket are recovered, there is no way to recover the exhaust, air pollution particulates, and any small components that separate from the first stage.

Next, the Electron rocket releases lithium-polymer batteries during the Electron’s battery hot-swap, a maneuver in which discharged batteries are jettisoned to save weight, and those batteries may or may not be incinerated or they would otherwise also land in Lake Superior or somewhere in Ontario. Again, this presents a risk for soil and water contamination in addition to the low probability of their recovery. 

The Great Lakes themselves are the most precious resource on the continent and make up 1/5 of the world’s freshwater. We are living in a time when freshwater is becoming scarcer, more valuable than oil, gas, or coal, and impossible to live without (National Geographic 2020). To further illustrate the global situation, ocean saltwater is not drinkable; it must first undergo desalinization, for which current processes are expensive, energy-intensive, and involve large-scale facilities (USGS 2021). Water scarcity is a growing issue across the country due to increasing freshwater use, limited supply, pollution, and climate change related droughts. Sixty-one percent of Americans rely on surface water sources such as lakes, rivers, and streams for their drinking water; the other 39% rely on groundwater, which is water located underground in aquifers and wells (The Value of Water 2015).

In the Great Lakes region, a recent economic study found that 1.3 million jobs are directly connected to the Great Lakes states, generating $82 billion in wages, and that nearly 140,000 jobs have been added since 2009 (Michigan Sea Grant 2020). Almost 40 million Americans and Canadians depend on Great Lakes water for drinking. Furthermore, in the face of climate change, evidence indicates the Great Lakes region is already attracting new residents interested in the region’s relative climate safety (Bridge Michigan 2021).

Inevitable impacts to the environment

Yet, it is clear that the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA) is determined to develop Michigan’s space industry with a disregard for launch pad siting issues as well as the growing realities of the looming global freshwater crisis. The New York Times describes the impending crisis and climate-spurred migration in America in a recent, well-researched article (2020). These realities are overlooked by MAMA and its supporters as hyper-vigilance and fanatical environmentalism. Not only in their disregard for globally diminishing resources we all must share, but also in the lack of consideration for terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems already at risk.

Fragile terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems surrounding the location of the hypothetical vertical spaceport are precious beyond measure. At the state-level, there are 85 species of conservation concern in Marquette County, Michigan; these include eleven (11) endangered species, twenty-four (24) threatened species, and fifty (50) species of special concern (MNFI 2021).  Among these, the federally-threatened Northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), has suffered 99 percent population declines in the Northeast due to white-nose syndrome and other factors (FWS 2021). Other birds of state-level conservation concern include the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), osprey (Pandion haliaetus), and the black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus). Of particular concern is the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), which has been historically impacted by lead poisonings and is often seen nesting along Marquette County’s Lake Superior shoreline. State-wide, Marquette County was ranked 9th highest of all counties for bald eagle sightings in 2017. Bald eagles are extremely sensitive to human activity, and should be provided adequate buffers for protection during the first 12 weeks of their breeding season (MNFI 2021).

In addition, the proposed Granot Loma site is within two miles of key habitat for rehabilitation of the coaster brook trout, which is a form of native brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) that lives part of its lifecycle in the nearshore Great Lakes. The Michigan DNR is currently conducting an experimental regulation change study on portions of select Lake Superior tributaries to rehabilitate historic spawning runs of coaster brook trout (Zorn 2021). These unique and prized native fish were once widespread in the nearshore waters of the upper Great Lakes, and ongoing research has been conducted to improve their population over time (USFWS 2019). According to records from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, there is a key fish spawning area which extends from Thoneys Point southward to about the mouth of the Little Garlic River (a total of 1.4 miles). This reef was described as the best in the Marquette-Big Bay area (MDNR 1979). Given the potential for soil and water contamination near a spaceport, concern for key features of the ecosystem should be taken into account. 

Development in coastal forested areas has greater impact on ecosystems due to their biological uniqueness, and the potential for contaminated runoff to enter waterways. Natural community types known to exist along this stretch of coast are categorized by the Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI) by their rarity and the highly unique species which depend on them (summarized by Schultz). These communities are defined as follows:

1.) Vulnerable communities, which include boreal forest (GU; S3), dry mesic northern forest (G4; S3), hardwood conifer swamp (G4; S3), and

2.)  Imperiled communities, which include granite bedrock glade (G3G5; S2), granite lakeshore cliff (GU; S1), granite bedrock lakeshore (G4G5; S2), and sandstone lakeshore cliff (G3; S2).

Furthermore, the act of clear-cutting the coastal community ecosystems in the vicinity of the proposed launch site and the creation of a commercial spaceport would cause an increase in carbon emissions. Deforestation on any scale leads to loss of carbon storage capacity and a large increase of CO2 through cellular respiration in the newly exposed soil (Trees in Trust 2009). Once development is spurred, the likelihood for additional industrial growth only continues. The proposed build site would involve filling in freshwater forested shrub wetlands on the property, and thus a loss of natural ecosystem water filtration services, which would otherwise remain fully preserved (Marquette County RFI Response Addendum 2019). A spaceport launch pad would require the development of paved surfaces within 150-300 meters of the Lake Superior shoreline (Marquette County RFI Response Addendum 2019).

Yet, research by the Center for Watershed Protection has found that as the quantity of paved surfaces increases, nearby water quality health declines (2003). There are  additional obvious coastal runoff risks associated with transporting, storing, preparing, mixing, and fueling with kerosene and the cryogenic liquid oxygen oxidizer. Propellants could be spilled, carried by the wind, in the troposphere, or release at higher altitudes. 

Conclusively, the proposed development of a commercial spaceport in a quiet location along the southern shore of Lake Superior would bring permanent and unnecessary industrial impacts. This is a poor location for spaceport development due to the potential for rocket debris accumulation in Lake Superior; adjacent, high-quality freshwater resources; freshwater water scarcity issues; new potential risk factors for 85 species of conservation concern; threats to rare biological communities; and the potential for contaminated runoff to enter waterways. Rocket exhaust is harmful to the environment on many levels, and even rockets considered to have less harmful water vapor exhaust, used with greater frequency, could contribute to increasing ozone depletion and mesospheric cloud formation (Ross et al. 2009). This could have serious long-term impacts to the ozone layer, which acts as a shield for life on earth from detrimental ultraviolet radiation that could damage DNA molecules in plants and animals (National Geographic 2021). The present zoning at Granot Loma does not allow for commercial spaceport-related structures and there are zero approved FAA permits. Let’s keep it that way.

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