Screenshot from Keep Bastrop Boring/Chap Ambrose on YouTube.

Should Elon Musk’s Construction Projects Rise Above Minimum Local Regs? Texas Neighbors Say “Yes!”

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Elon Musk’s construction projects across Texas have resulted in billions of dollars in investment. SpaceX has a rocket launchpad on the Gulf of Mexico (which was, sadly, the site in April of a human-less Starship explosion just after liftoff). Tesla recently broke ground on its in-house lithium refinery, located in the greater Corpus Christi area. Giga Austin — promised to be an “ecological paradise” — is producing 5,000 Model Ys a week.

Some of Musk’s construction projects, however, aren’t as well-received by local Texans. Citizens in Bastrop, a largely rural county 30 minutes east of Austin, are fighting back against Musk’s construction procedures due to what they say is environmental harm to the once rolling farmlands.

Elon Musk moved his startup, The Boring Company, to a 70-acre pasture in Bastrop, Texas, in May 2021. Musk’s construction sites and enormous white warehouses now rise from landscape where cattle grazed on verdant pastures; these buildings are designed to manufacture and test tunnel-boring equipment.

Not long after, SpaceX began constructing a massive building across the road. Semis barrel up and down the narrow country roads. Chap and Maura Ambrose and their children live on a nearby 10-acre property. The work was “24/7 … spotlights all night,” Maura notes.

Neighborhood concerns erupted when The Boring Company discharged 143,000 gallons of treated wastewater daily into the Colorado River. Alarmed by the speed and scale of the building, Chap began flying his drone over the construction sites to capture images. He posted updates to social media and a website he started, Keep Bastrop Boring, which he advertised on a local billboard.

He posted videos of construction activities in which tunnels were excavated under the road to connect the Boring and SpaceX sites. Chap submitted a complaint to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) over that dirt, which he worried could be contaminated with chemicals. He posted footage of a work crew bulldozing trees. He submitted a complaint about SpaceX to the TCEQ after seeing a hose pumping water from the construction site into a roadside ditch. The TCEQ responded by sending out a violation over the discharge of the “sediment-laden water.”

Was this one more refusal to follow the terms of their permit? Focused grassroots research and planning followed quickly as the state called public meetings.

Musk’s construction fast-tracking has become evident to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which has cited the building sites with several violations over poor erosion controls and other matters.

Agency officials “have been clear that their unapproved driveway poses a hazard to the public. The Bastrop Area Office has been clear on what is required to mitigate this hazard. The Boring Company has objected to some of these mitigation actions,” Miguel Arellano, a transportation department employee, wrote in an April 21, 2022, email to colleagues.

Musk called his former home of California “the land of sort of overregulation, overlitigation, overtaxation.”

“Texas landowner rights allow you to do pretty much anything on your land, but Texas law also says we share the air and The Boring Company shares the groundwater with my family,” says Chap. The neighbors insist that Musk’s construction teams are breaking county laws. Their immediate concern was with area groundwater. The Boring Company tied their operations and employee trailers into the commercial water pipeline. Plans showed them tunneling 1,500 feet from the Lower Colorado River.

With an extremely shallow water table — mostly sand and gravel — each family home in the area depends on well water for drinking, and several rely on it as part of their small businesses.

The stormwater violation reads as follows: “Failure to conduct dewatering activities managed by appropriate controls. Specifically, dewatering occurred at the Site by pumping sediment-laden water over silt fences into a drainage ditch adjacent to the Site’s southern boundary without controls prescribed by the Site’s SWP3.” The status is noted as Resolved.

Robert Pugh, the county’s director of engineering and development at the time of the complaints, says that The Boring Company staff and consultants “regularly hounded” his office “to expedite and approve permit applications that are incomplete and not in compliance” with regulations. The company had already received notice of multiple environmental violations, and public records indicate a lack of good faith to work with regulators.

Chap Ambrose’s website speaks of his frustration and dismay with Musk’s construction. “I’m actually an Elon fan,” Ambrose says, “so I was initially excited about what they would be doing. However, my direct experience working with the leadership team at The Boring Company has been disappointing and downright disrespectful. They’ve made lots of promises to neighbors and county officials but have not delivered.”

After being asked to sign an NDA when he requested site drawings, Chap later learned those drawings were public record. “Why doesn’t this public infrastructure company want transparency?” he asks. “How can we trust them to do the right thing underground when they’ve shown contempt for our minimal, rural permitting process?” Several neighbors have been asked to sign NDAs by Musk’s construction teams; most have refused.

Subsequent complaints followed.

Chap went to the Bastrop County Commissioner’s Court “to force them to install a legal septic system and submit driveway permits.” Texas’s transportation department reprimanded Boring for building an unpermitted driveway that it said posed traffic-safety concerns, and Bastrop County issued a violation over unauthorized wastewater holding tanks.

Chap states that he’s proud of Bastrop County for stepping up and forcing The Boring Company and SpaceX to follow the rules, “the same rules we all have to follow as Bastrop citizens.”

The neighborhood action group wants sensors around every tunnel that publish public data about water quality and any potential contaminants. They also want a team onsite with the tunneling crew providing transparency. “I’m working with every local and federal agency to ensure they’re following every applicable rule and regulation,” Chap explains. “But, unfortunately, the more I understand about what is legally required of them, the more violations I uncover.”

He has received tips from industry experts, former employees, and current employees. These include documented proof of unsafe working conditions, environmental issues, and ethical concerns. He has reported them to the relevant bodies.

“If Elon is going to prototype the world’s fastest tunneling operation in my neighborhood,” Chap explains, “then I expect the most innovative and transparent safety systems to go alongside it.”

Amy Weir, a local property owner, said Musk’s companies have “no doubt done amazing things,” but that there was no need for them to “reinvent wastewater treatment” when the city was ready to handle the job.

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I Owe My Soul to the Company Store

In a quirky aside to the Texas violations story, a new community outside Austin next to Boring and SpaceX facilities, dubbed Snailbrook, will serve as a place for Musk’s employees to live and work. Musk is said to have acquired 3,500 acres of land for this “Texas utopia” in Bastrop County. The name Snailbrook derives from The Boring Company’s directive to build machines that “move faster than a snail.” Evident are the beginnings of the small town, which currently houses some modular homes, several large buildings, a warehouse, a sports court, a pool, a gym, and a Montessori school.

The county has already approved streets called Boring Boulevard, Waterjet Way, and Cutterhead Crossing. Initial plans are to charge employees who live in Snailbrook a very reasonable $800 per month in rent. Kanye West and Grimes were consultants to the project.

“He is incredibly bright, he’s been incredibly successful, and he’s done things that are extremely hard,” Maurice Schweitzer, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said of Musk. But that success, he added, has “caused him some conceit where he feels entitled and he feels a sense of being special in a way that’s caused him to overextend himself.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) praises Musk, saying, “There is no greater entrepreneur in the entire world.” The Washington Post reported that Musk stood in front of a Cybertruck decorated with US and Texas flags while thanking the state for supporting him and helping him move fast.

Featured image from Keep Bastrop Boring/Chap Ambrose on YouTube

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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