Lawsuit seeks to revoke FAA license for Georgia spaceport

In this 2008 photo, a wild horse grazes next to the ruins of the Dungeness mansion in the south end of Cumberland Island in Camden County, Georgia. Camden County wants to fire rockets over a sparsely populated barrier island as well as over federally protected Cumberland Island. Opponents say the risk of misfires raining fiery debris is too great. Voters rejected the project in a March referendum, but officials have vowed to move forward.(AP Photo/Chris Viola)

Opponents of a proposed launchpad for commercial rockets on the Georgia coast are asking a court to throw out the project’s government license, saying the Federal Aviation Administration failed to correctly assess the risks of firing rockets over homes and a barrier island popular with tourists.

Attorneys for the Southern Environmental Law Center filed suit in U.S. District Court seeking to revoke the launch site operator license the FAA granted in December to the planned Spaceport Camden. Officials in coastal Camden County havespent the past decade and more than $10 million seeking to build a spaceport for launching satellites into orbit.

The proposed flight path would send rockets over Little Cumberland Island, which has about 40 private homes, and neighboring Cumberland Island, a federally protected wilderness visited by about 60,000 tourists each year. Residents and the National Park Service have said they fear explosive misfires raining fiery debris could spark wildfires near homes and people.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of homeowners and conservation groups says the FAA allowed county officials to minimize potential safety risks by basing their license application on a hypothetical rocket “that does not exist” and is smaller than current commercial rockets. It says the FAA didn’t follow its own policies that call for holding such “unproven” rockets to a higher standard.

“The FAA’s decision to license a site where rockets would launch over people, homes, and Cumberland Island National Seashore … is contrary to the agency’s regulations for licensing launch sites and is unprecedented in the history of the United States’ commercial space program,” said the the lawsuit, filed May 19 in the District of Columbia.

The lawsuit also claims that a top FAA official privately told opponents of Spaceport Camden in March 2019 that he doubted the project would be successful.

The document says a group of Little Cumberland Island homeowners traveled to Washington to meet with FAA officials including Wayne Monteith, who was then the agency’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation. The lawsuit says Monteith told the group “that 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 Thursday that the agency does not comment on pending litigation. John Simpson, a spokesman for the Spaceport Camden project, did not immediately reply to an email message.

Monteith no longer works for the FAA and is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Reached by phone, Monteith’s wife said he was traveling Thursday. He did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

In Camden County, a community of 55,000 people on the Georgia-Florida line, commissioners have long argued that a spaceport would bring economic growth not just from rocket launches, but also by attracting related industries and tourists.
Opponents say the plans to build the spaceport on an industrial plot formerly used to manufacture pesticides and munitions poses potential environmental and safety hazards that outweigh any economic benefits.

The FAA’s final environmental impact report on Spaceport Camden concluded county officials had submitted an “adequate and appropriate” plan for dealing with fires and other emergencies that might arise from rocket launches.

However, the FAA noted when it granted the county’s license to operate a spaceport in December that a separate and more comprehensive review would be required before any rockets could be launched. The agency stressed in a letter that “no outcome is guaranteed.”

In March, opponents forced a referendum on the project after gathering more than 3,500 petition signatures from registered voters saying they wanted the spaceport on the ballot.

The result was a big defeat for the spaceport. The final tally showed 72% of voters sided with halting the project by overruling commissioners’ prior decision to buy land for the spaceport.

County officials have given no indication that they plan to abandon the spaceport. Just days after the referendum, they voted to move ahead with buying property for the project. Meanwhile, commissioners have a legal case pending in Georgia that seeks to have the referendum declared invalid.