Environment minister sends Canso spaceport company back to drawing board

A wide range of provincial and federal departments, as well as members of the public and Mi'kmaq groups, raised concerns about the potential impacts of the commercial rocket launch site.

Margaret Miller says company did not provide sufficient detail for her to make decision on proposal

A rendering of the first stage of a rocket launch. (Maritime Launch Services)

Nova Scotia's environment minister says she can't make a decision whether to approve a proposed rocket launch site near Canso, N.S., because the company behind the project has not provided sufficient information.

In a decision released late Thursday afternoon, Margaret Miller said Maritime Launch Services (MLS) must conduct more studies and prepare a more comprehensive report "to better understand the potential for adverse effects or significant environmental effects."

Miller is requiring the company to submit a report on the potential impacts of the spaceport on water, soil, air, noise, flora, fauna, fish and fish habitat, protected areas and parks, dangerous goods management, waste management, human health and contingency planning. 

The company will have one year to prepare the report once it receives specific instructions from the department. Maritime Launch Services must also submit baseline studies on wildlife, fish and fish habitat before the project begins.

Maritime Launch Services aims to build a private, commercial rocket launch site to send satellites into space for use in near-earth imaging, communications and scientific experiments.

The company has said it hopes to launch its first rocket in the summer of 2021, and plans to start out with three launches a year and work its way up to eight.

Company remains 'optimistic'

Stephen Matier, the president and chief executive officer, said while the decision put a damper on the company's plans to break ground later this year, it still plans on beginning construction in the spring.

"We will do it as quickly as we can, and as correctly as we can, we don't want to see this thing drag out," he said. "We certainly want to see this project through to success, we're certainly committed to making it work."

Matier said he's "disappointed" that their original application wasn't enough, but he said he's confident they'll finish the study with plenty of time to spare so they can begin construction as soon as possible.

"We never expected that this would fall off a log easy, we knew there would be challenges, and this is one of them," he said. "We're optimistic."

Environmental concerns

Miller's letter to the company said concerns were raised by members of the public, Mi'kmaq groups and the province's Environment Department, Department of Lands and Forestry and the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, as well as Environment and Climate Change Canada, Health Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Department of National Defence.

The Native Council of Nova Scotia submitted a five-page letter to the Environment Department questioning several aspects of the project, including impacts on animals, birds and marine life and the structural integrity of nearby wind turbines.

Maritime Launch Services plans to use Cyclone 4M rockets developed in Ukraine. (Maritime Launch Services)

The council also mentioned the lack of data in the company's environmental assessment document about the plume of emissions that will occur during launches. MLS's assessment notes that the company needs more information from the rocket manufacturer about specific design details before it can complete plume emission modelling.

"How were the effects of air quality determined without modelling being completed?" the council asked in its letter.

Several residents who submitted comments to the department questioned the potential hazards of using of the rocket propellant unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, or UDMH, which one researcher has characterized as "toxic."

"I am primarily concerned about the accidental release of the second-stage rocket fuel, UDMH, should the rocket need to be destroyed before reaching the upper atmosphere," wrote Mark Beaudry. "Due to the extreme toxicity of the fuel, what precautions will be taken to prevent transportation accidents? This isn't just a tanker filled with gasoline or propane running through the streets."

A nine-page comment from avian consultant John Kearney, who notes that he did three years of fieldwork in the area before the nearby Sable Wind project was built, highlights potential impacts of the project on birds. Since the Canso area is an arrival and departure point for migrating birds, noise and lights from the spaceport project could affect several species, he writes.

Kearney notes that while the company's assessment concludes that the project will have minimal or no residual effects, "such an analysis is premature given the data gaps pointed out in these comments and the lack of information on the transport, handling and storage of UDMH." 

Economic benefits

Of the 14 public submissions, a small number were supportive of the project.

"I am wholeheartedly in favour of this project," wrote Ewen Gardner. "The further development of our space flight capabilities is necessary for developing security for humanity as a species. Furthermore, the development of a spaceport in Nova Scotia will have positive impacts on employment within Nova Scotia for building and then maintaining the necessary infrastructure."

A handwritten submission reads, "I firmly support the Canso spaceport facility project. There is not enough work in the Maritimes as it is. It can't hurt nothing as there is wind farms there now."

With files from The Canadian Press

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