Questions being raised about affects on agriculture regarding potential spaceport | TheFencePost.com

Questions being raised about affects on agriculture regarding potential spaceport

Rachel Spencer Gabel
For The Fence Post

A spaceport at Front Range Airport in Watkins, Colo., is moving closer to becoming a reality. Flights from the port would fly over a large section of eastern Colorado and the flights and the effect on residents is raising questions.

In an interview with KSIR's Lorrie Boyer, former Colorado Senator Greg Brophy said the potential effect on residents and agriculture needs to be addressed.

Brophy, who attended public meetings on the topic, said an aircraft would depart Front Range Airport and fly out over the eastern Plains until an altitude of 45,000 feet is reached. At that point, the rocket booster would propel the aircraft into low Earth orbit. The aircraft, after emitting the second of two sonic booms, would then circle back over the Highway 36 corridor to reach an altitude appropriate to approach and land at Front Range Airport like a corporate jet.

In rural eastern Colorado, those in Washington, Yuma, Kit Carson and Lincoln counties as well as Cheyenne County, Kan., would all be affected by the 5,000 square mile region that contains the flight path and the effects of sonic booms.

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"Right now, all it is is a big, glorified carnival ride that may have some utility for experimenting in a weightless environment," Brophy said.

During the flights, air traffic over the 5,000 square mile area will be closed to both commercial and agricultural air traffic due to what Brophy said was the possibility of falling debris. This would have a deep affect on agricultural applicators and the time-sensitive application of agricultural chemicals to crops. As the area would also be closed to commercial traffic, Brophy said the airlines that fly in and out of Denver International Airport are "adamantly opposed" to these flights. Adams County Communications Director Jim Siedlecki, however, said the closure of air space is something the Federal Aviation Administration will have to address. He explained that air traffic controllers are able to reroute air traffic around a number of circumstances with much less notification than the application currently provides.

At this point, the license is purely a spaceport license and no flights will take place yet.

"There are three dominos that would have to fall before anything took off from a spaceport," he said. "The first thing is us becoming a licensed facility and then we would need a licensed operator, which would be a space company. That company would then need to have a licensed vehicle."

Siedlecki explained that Adams County has been involved in the application for a spaceport for six years, during which time more than 50 meetings have taken place, even as far east as Front Range Airport. He said any meetings in the eastern portion of the state would be at the discretion of the FAA rather than Adams County.

"We want to educate anyone who wants information, by all means, whether it's Mr. Brophy or any person who lives in the eastern portion who hasn't been brought up to speed," he said. "It's unfortunate over the past six years they haven't been in the know but it's not for a lack of trying."

According to Adams County Commissioner Mary Hodge, the Congressional representatives, Governor John Hickenlooper, the mayor of Denver and the head of Denver International Airport all signed an initial letter of support at the beginning of the licensing process in 2011.

"It's important for people in the eastern portion of the county, or anyone who is playing a little catch up and hasn't been following the story, to understand is we're not launching any rockets," he said. "No body has talked about a vertical launch, that's not part of our application."

The application details a horizontal takeoff of a corporate jet-style vehicle that would be taking off using jet fuel and landing under the same power and then land as a reusable vehicle.

Hodge said the benefit to Adams County comes in the form of economic development and the creation of 21st century jobs. This is, she said, a chance to retain the best and the brightest students who are seeking innovative jobs in the state.

Brophy, who said he's been generally supportive of the idea has concerns now that details are being released that he said will impact the quality of life and agriculture operations in eastern Colorado.

"I think the people of eastern Colorado should have been purposefully engaged as stakeholders with the Federal Aviation Administration and Adams County and the other stakeholders, and they weren't," he said.

While public meetings have been held, Brophy said both were on the Front Range and, as far as he's aware, none of the agricultural groups were contacted in an attempt to engage the residents who will be the most impacted. Others not notified include the schools of Idalia and Arickaree, which are both in the flight path.

We deserve (to know the potential impact) out here and that's what I've been trying to get the FAA to do is extend the meetings so we can have stakeholders from eastern Colorado in the process," he said.

With the main concerns being falling debris, the closure of the area to commercial and agricultural aircraft, and the noise from sonic booms, Brophy is hoping experts from the FAA will travel to meet with the stakeholders in eastern Colorado to field their questions.

"(The FAA should speak) especially with the aerial applicators about this," he said. "It seems like they're getting their business pinched from both sides all the time and they need to be heard in this case."

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, in an interview with Brian Allmer, expressed his concern with the weekly rate of experimental flights producing two sonic booms per flight over the next five years.

"What is the impact of sonic booms on reproductive cycles of livestock?" he said. "Is the noise barrier such that it breaks windows in tractors and houses? Those are questions people are asking trying to understand what this is all about."

Sonnenberg also expressed concern about the closure of the area to air traffic during experimental flights and its effect on aerial applicators and the number of acres that will be left unsprayed during the closure.

"One of the questions I had then was for our aerial applications of chemicals on ag land," he said. "If you shut them down for that hour, I'm trying to do the math. Those guys usually spray about 200 acres per hour and if you shut down 13 or 14 of them, I don't know exactly how many of them there are in that territory. If you assume 13, that's 2,600 acres of farm ground that will not get sprayed."

Sonnenberg went on to point out conditions for ideal chemical applications may fall during the time of the airspace closure.

"If that happens, then all of a sudden agriculture takes the bullet," he said.

At a licensing hearing last Thursday, Brophy asked that the permit be declared incomplete until the stakeholders in eastern Colorado were included. In the meantime, Brophy is encouraging residents to voice their concerns to the FAA and their state Congressmen and Senators. Brophy also encouraged residents to follow the Facebook page Concerned Citizens of Eastern Colorado for updates on the permitting process and upcoming meetings. Comments to the FAA will be accepted until May 25, 2018. A decision is due from the FAA by August 19.

"There may not be many people out here in eastern Colorado," Brophy said. "But we still deserve to be heard." ❖

— Spencer Gabel is a freelance writer from Wiggins, Colo., where she and her family raise cattle and show goats.