Opponents of the proposed Spaceport Camden are closing in on the number of Camden County signatures needed to force a special election on the issue.

While a Camden spokesman dismissed the effort as unlikely to succeed, organizer Steve Wienkle said he has more than 3,900 of about 4,100 signatures required by the repeal procedure outlined in the Georgia Constitution.

“As soon as we've verified that we have enough signatures, we'll go ahead and file,” said Weinkle, a Camden resident who for years has criticized the proposed spaceport as a waste of taxpayer money. Weinkle keeps a running tally of the money spent on Spaceport Camden posted on his website Spaceport Facts. So far, it’s over $10 million.

Camden spokesman John Simpson downplayed the threat to the project.

“Camden County believes the petition is on shaky legal ground and significant legal questions will need to be resolved before any referendum is likely,” wrote Simpson, of Capitol Resources LLC, a multistate government relations and public affairs firm based in Jackson, Mississippi.

Neither Simpson nor County Manager and Spaceport Camden Project Lead Steve Howard responded to two requests to elaborate on the legal questions to be resolved.

The county-led project aims to launch small rockets from a former industrial site the county would buy from Union Carbide. The commercial rockets would lift off from the marsh-front site on the mainland and soar over nearby Cumberland Island National Seashore, a huge concern for visitors to the national park and an even bigger one for residents. A dozen spaceports are already licensed around the U.S., but none of them launch rockets vertically over nearby residents.

Polluted site

But the risk of launching rockets isn’t the focus of this latest effort against the spaceport. Instead, it’s the risk posed by the county owning the Union Carbide site. If successful, the ballot measure would prevent the county from buying that property.

Spaceport opponents say county ownership of the land is too risky because the 4,000 acre tract is polluted. It was historically used for the production of munitions and pesticides.

Spaceport site
Potential site of Spaceport Camden Credit: Spaceport Camden

It's not a Superfund site; that act is invoked for sites that are shut down. Instead, Georgia regulators at the Environmental Protection Division invoked the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act when Union Carbide was still operating there and set up the management of a hazardous waste landfill on the site. The landfill and a buffer around it would be carved out from the portion sold to Camden, but an environmental covenant on the site places restrictions on the entire site, not just the landfill. Among other provisions, the covenant prohibits housing anywhere within its boundaries to reduce exposure to lingering pollutants.

County Commission Vice Chair Ben Casey, who has personal knowledge of the property from working construction on it and later working as an instrument technician for chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturer Rhone-Poulenc in the late 1980s, doesn’t see a big problem with the county buying it.

“Yes, there's hazardous waste out there,” he said. “We're not buying the hazardous waste landfill. It is an excellent piece of property. Even if it doesn't become part of a Spaceport, it will be some type of industrial concern. It will never be housing, residential stuff. Because of the simple reason kids eat dirt. But as far as an industrial site, it is wide open for anything like that.”

The county intends to mitigate potential liability by conducting “all appropriate inquiries” pre-transfer and “reasonable steps and appropriate care” post-transfer, according to the project’s Environmental Impact Statement release in June. The county also plans to purchase pollution legal liability insurance.

But Weinkle fears the safeguards in place are insufficient.

“The whole thing is plagued with all kinds of problems that are going to come up in the future, ” he said. “It's just one thing after another after another. For instance, they don't have any sewer out there. Oops. So they're gonna have to put septic systems in. And they're going to have to dig those septic systems in after making sure there's no explosives or toxic chemicals where they're going to put the septic systems.”

He points also to the adjacent Bayer CropScience property, which is also polluted and which the Final Environmental Impact Statement indicated the county plans to purchase or lease for Spaceport Camden. That property is contaminated with a host of suspected pollutants including pesticides, munitions waste gas/diesel compounds, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene as well as sanitary wastewater disposal. But the EIS fails to explore if a spaceport would exacerbate the risk of this hazardous waste, Weinkle wrote in a recent letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Doesn’t ignoring Bayer’s legacy of hazardous operations and secreted waste disposal sites expose the FINAL EIS as intentionally incomplete?” he wrote.

Megan Desrosiers, the executive director of the nonprofit coastal Georgia conservation group One Hundred Miles, agrees. Her group has aided the grass roots effort to force a referendum on the spaceport, mailing petitions to registered voters.

The contamination on the property is not fully mapped and understood, Desrosiers said.

“The best thing is for it to remain in the hands of the chemical companies who know how to clean up spilled chemicals,” she said. “And a county doesn't know how to do that. And also, the people who own it now are in the chain of liability for paying for the cleanup. So if the county would buy that, then they would be in the chain of liability for that too, when the county had nothing to do with the contamination.”

Megan Desrosiers holds the stack of petitions collected to force a referendum on the purchase of land for Spaceport Camden. Credit: One Hundred Miles

What’s next

The Camden County Commission originally signed a purchase option agreement on the property in 2015. But they can’t close on the deal until the Federal Aviation Administration agrees to issue a spaceport site operator’s license for the site.

“Everything depends on the license,” Casey said. “If we don't get the license, we're not buying the property.”

That final decision on that license has been delayed several times and may be again. The current deadline is Dec. 15.

“We remain confident that Spaceport Camden meets all FAA requirements under 14 USC Part 420,” Simpson wrote in an email, referring to the federal code that pertains to licensing a spaceport operator.

Petition organizers expect to bring their signatures to Camden County Probate Court this week. For counties with a population over 50,000 — Camden has about 55,000 people — the Georgia Constitution indicates signatures are needed from 10% of registered voters for a special election to be called. In Camden’s case that’s about 41,000 registered voters on the current rolls or 4,100 signatures needed.

If a sufficient number of signatures are verified as registered Camden County voters, the constitution calls for the judge to schedule a Special Election within 90 days of the filing date.

A simple majority is needed on election day to “deny the Commissioners the right to spend taxpayer funds to buy the Union Carbide property identified for Spaceport Camden.”

Or it might not come to that, Desrosiers said.

“So what I hope happens, and this all relies on a response by the county, is that the county sees that we have these thousands of signatures. And the county says, ‘Okay, we have to hold up and make sure that whatever we decide to do is what the people want us to do,’” Desrosiers said.

Or the FAA could delay its decision and allow the petition process to play out.

“And then because the option to purchase the property that the county has signed, it has a trigger in it, they cannot purchase the property until the FAA issues the launch license,” Desrosiers said.

Mary Landers is a reporter for Stanley R. Boxer in Coastal Georgia with more than two decades of experience focusing on the environment. Contact her at mary.landers@stanleyrboxer.com She covered climate and...