WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Florida officials are proposing a site for private companies to launch payloads into space near a federally protected seashore and wildlife refuge that is also home to threatened species, wetlands, hunting lands, a cemetery and a 17th-century sugar plantation considered one of the most significant African-American archaeological sites in the country.
"I've rarely seen a worse one, in terms of site selection, than this," said Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon Florida, said about the proposed Shiloh Launch Complex north of the Kennedy Space Center.
"It's uniformly bad for the environment," he said.
The Shiloh Launch Complex would be built on 200 acres of undeveloped land near a former citrus community called Shiloh. The site, about 10 miles north of the NASA launchpads at the Kennedy Space Center, would have two launchpads that could accommodate up to 24 launches per year. Two off-site support facilities are also planned.
The project's promoter is Space Florida, the state's aeronautic economic development authority. It was created by the legislature in 2006 to promote commercial space flight and aerospace research, development and jobs in Florida.
Among the biggest concerns for environmentalists: destruction of wetlands. However, Space Florida estimates that less than half of the wetlands in the project footprint will be affected. The land that will be disturbed is mostly fallow orange groves, the group said.
Space Florida said access to recreation, such as fishing and kayaking, may be off-limits for six to 15 hours during launches, but "we anticipate there will be people still able to fish much of the lagoon, and watch from the beach during a launch."
An environmental study by the Federal Aviation Administration will make the final determination.
Environmental regulations also pose concerns. The Shiloh site contains high-quality habitat for the Florida scrub jay, a threatened species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned that the Shiloh project could limit the service's ability to conduct controlled burns, which help manage the ecosystem that sustains the scrub jay.
Space Florida officials said the Shiloh Project "should not be an obstacle" to the practice.
There also are three archaeological sites, including the Elliot Plantation, a British Colonial-era plantation.
Archaeologists have found the remnants of roads, canals, slave villages, houses and a sugar factory on that site.
The National Park Service has recommended that the Elliot Plantation is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places and for consideration as a National Historic Landmark.
Cynthia K. Dohner, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a letter to the FAA that the project would likely affect 16 threatened and endangered species and other at-risk species.
The Shiloh site also sits beneath the airspace arrival route into Orlando International Airport. In their environmental site review, consultants said that the airspace would have to be shut down during launches.
Space Florida officials admit air traffic "is an issue that will need to be addressed."
The FAA will hold hearings next month on the project's environmental impact.