Economic development vs environmental preservation
AT FIRST, THE announcement was greeted with excitement: Marquette County had been selected as the site for a proposed vertical launch spaceport.
New jobs, mostly high tech, would be coming to the area–250 at the site itself, an estimated 2000 total because of the overall economic impact here.
Enthusiastic supporters included Congressman Jack Bergman, State Senator Ed McBroom, and State Representative Sara Cambensy.
But then doubts were raised and critics started speaking up. Petitions opposing and supporting the spaceport began circulating online.
“Our primary concern with the proposal is the new location,” says Carl Lindquist, the executive director of the Superior Watershed Alliance. “Originally the plan was to re-use the KI Sawyer location. That made some sense. But the Granot Loma area, a pristine wilderness, is just unacceptable. The impact would be devastating.”
Gavin Brown, the executive director of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA) which is sponsoring the spaceport initiative, says the KI Sawyer location was seriously considered but ultimately rejected.
“We didn’t want launches going over homes, schools, and hospitals,” he explains. “With this new site, the launches will be heading out over the lake.”
The proposed site is about 20 miles north of Marquette, directly on the Lake Superior shore. It’s approximately 2500 acres, the property currently of a single landowner.
“They’ll be cutting down a huge swath of timber and then paving it,” says Chip Truscon, an environmentalist who’s spent decades in governmental and medical planning. “It could create a new microclimate on the shore of Lake Superior. It would be a foolish move.”
Even Scott Erbisch, the County Administrator, a supporter of the project whose office pushed for locating the spaceport in Marquette County, concedes he has concerns.
“We thought Sawyer would have been the optimal site but they decided against it,” he says. “We are concerned about the environment and there will be an extensive environmental review process before anything is approved.”
Best guess is that the approval process will take three to four years, and the spaceport–which would actually be a consortium of private companies–wouldn’t go into operation until 2025. If it’s approved.
Brown, the MAMA executive director, says the criticisms and concerns are overblown.
“When some people think of a spaceport, they think of Cape Canaveral,” he says. “This will be nothing like that.”
He estimates the rockets launching the satellites into space will be perhaps 1/20th the size of the Atlas rockets that are launched at Cape Canaveral. He says they will generate the noise of an ordinary jet, and the noise heard on the ground will last approximately 12 seconds, and then fade.
Brown projects that the first year, the spaceport would conduct four launches, and then afterwards, it would likely be 24 launches a year.
Further, he guarantees that the spaceport would utilize the latest in “green” technology and have only a minimal carbon footprint. No current roads would be altered, he says, and residents in the area wouldn’t notice anything about the spaceport–except for very brief periods during those 24 launch days a year.
No airfield on the site, everything would be trucked in.
And, he emphasizes, the spaceport would bring in much needed jobs and economic development to the UP.
“Jobs are important,”Lindquist counters, “but not at the cost of damaging the environment. The Superior Watershed Partnership supports new jobs and sustainable economic development, but this proposal is simply not environmentally sustainable.”
“We understand there are environmental concerns,” Brown says, “and we will be listening to the community and their concerns.”
Meetings, hearings, and community input will constitute a major part of the approval process over the next three to four years. Residents will have a chance to voice their concerns and express their opposition or support for the spaceport proposal.
It sounds reminiscent of what this community went through several years back with plans for the Kennecott (now Eagle) mine in northern Marquette County. A fierce battle between the mining company and environmentalists ensued, and ultimately the company won.
“The resistance this time will be much greater,” predicts Lindquist. “The word has gotten out and people are really angry because the footprint here will be much greater.”
The Superior Watershed Partnership has invited the Union of Concerned Scientists and an independent nonprofit organization to come in and provide assessments of the ecological and tourism impacts of the spaceport.
Those reports will be part of the record, along with testimony from other scientific, environmental, business and labor groups, governmental regulators, political entities, and residents.
Bottom line, we have a long ways to go. This is not a done deal. The property has not been sold yet, no money has changed hands, according to Brown and MAMA, and likely won’t be until the lengthy approval process is behind us.