The Bait & Switch Behind the Granot Loma Launch Plan

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Blog post written by Dennis Ferraro, Board President of Citizens for a Safe & Clean Lake Superior.

Background:

Defining a “bait and switch” as “the ploy of offering a person something desirable to gain favor (such as political support), then thwarting expectations with something less desirable,” Merriam Webster describes perfectly what the Marquette County Board and Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA) recently pulled off in Marquette County. These rocket launch promoters publicly offered as bait, the prospect of hundreds, if not thousands, of local jobs at a proposed horizontal launch site at the industrially developed KI Sawyer Airport, and then secretly made the switch to a vertical launch site, which will only produce a handful of jobs, on the pristine and ecologically sensitive Lake Superior coastline at Granot Loma

Baiting:

In the lame duck period of the outgoing Snyder administration, the legislature authorized $2 million to fund the Michigan Launch Initiative (MLI), a purported public/private effort to organize industrial satellite launching facilities. This was a boon to MAMA, which then sought to draw upon the funds. However, when a technical glitch in the funding bill’s language held up the release of a significant portion, if not all, of that money, MAMA began working with local governments, including the Marquette County Board, to appeal to the new Governor to release those funds. 

Accordingly, at its 5/07/19 meeting, the Marquette County Board adopted a “resolution appealing to the State of Michigan to support the establishment of spaceport operations at Sawyer International Airport [which is owned by Marquette County] by investing $750,000 in Michigan Launch Initiative’s efforts to perform Phase I site investigations and developing start-up objectives.

Seeking to enhance its competitive edge with MAMA, in hopes of having KI Sawyer designated as a horizontal spaceport launch facility, the Marquette County Board immediately began reaching out to businesses, organizations, and cities in  Marquette County asking them to also appeal to the Governor; and these entities all responded, believing the spaceport would be at KI Sawyer:

Appendix E Letters of Support (PDF)

Unfortunately, as will be discussed below, these endorsements for a Sawyer spaceport were later secretly and falsely used for a purpose for which they were never intended, namely, to promote lakeshore launch sites, including Granot Loma. 

Then, at its 07/07/2019 meeting a Marquette County Board Chairman officially stated that “the Governor signed the $2 million dollars for the evaluation of 5 sites in Michigan for the Spaceport,” exclaiming “it would be great to have the spaceport at Sawyer!” 

Subsequently, at its 08/20/2019 meeting, the Marquette County Board authorized spending $21,800 of taxpayer money to hire an aerospace consulting firm, Explorer Solutions, for the express and sole purpose “to assist with efforts to establish a space port at Sawyer International Airport.

Thus, until a year later, 07/23/2020, when the Board and MAMA jointly made a surprise announcement on the Marquette Courthouse steps that Granot Loma was selected as a vertical rocket launch site, the only public disclosure and/or press coverage of a possible launch site in Marquette County was all about a horizontal launch site at KI Sawyer.

Switching:

Using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to pull back the curtain on events between August 2019 and July 2020, Citizens for a Safe and Clean Lake Superior (CSCLS) compelled Marquette County to produce documents showing how the public plan for a KI Sawyer spaceport was secretly and drastically changed to Granot Loma.

On 09/18/2019, Explorer Solutions, reporting to Marquette County, recommended multiple vertical launch sites on Lake Superior’s shoreline, including the Ford property in Big Bay, Little Presque Isle beach park, a floating barge docked at Presque Isle Marina in Marquette harbor, and Granot Loma (pages 18-21, MLI Report):

Sawyer International Airport - MLI Report - Explorer Solutions (PDF)

Regarding the Granot Loma site, Explorer Solutions warned of a “catastrophic” risk of “potential loss of human life,” including “a blow up of the LV [launch vehicle] at lift off” or “during the first seconds of flight”; and that this “would require the evacuation of 5 or 6 houses located southeast of the pad on the edge of the protection zone”; and that even if everything went as planned, there would be danger from falling rocket parts, because after each launch the “normally separated elements (fairing [ i.e., nose cone], 1st. and 2nd.stages) fall back to the ground” (pages 2, 11, 12, 19, MLI Report). 

We subsequently learned this falling debris also includes several large batteries.

Just two days later, 9/20/19, Marquette County responded to a Request for Information (RFI) from MAMA, by proposing a lakeshore launch site in Marquette Harbor: 

Marquette County MLI RFI Response (PDF)

On 10/28/19 Marquette County then supplemented its response with an addendum by recommending Granot Loma as a launch site, sending detailed property maps, stating that constructing this site would require “rezoning to industrial and an amendment to the Zoning Ordinance to include aerospace operations as a permitted use in the Industrial District” (page 12, RFI Addendum) and admitting it would be located on hydric wetlands (page 4, RFI Addendum):

Marquette County RFI Response Addendum (PDF)

Concealing from the Public:

And yet, all plans for lakeshore launch sites were hidden from the public eye. In fact, both the Powell Township and Marquette Township Supervisors were kept completely in the dark about these plans and the risks involved, and only learned of the bare outlines after MAMA and Marquette County made the surprise announcement in July 2020.

Moreover, considering that Marquette County’s two letters to MAMA are of one piece so to speak, with the 10/28/19 letter being an addendum to the earlier letter from 09/20/19, the lack of transparency, and obvious misrepresentation, is quite concerning. 

Answering question #10, page 13 of the first letter, the County states that there has been “no public opposition,” and that it does “not anticipate any public opposition” to a lakeshore rocket launch site:

Marquette County MLI RFI Response (PDF)

Of course, there was no public opposition, because the public had never been informed of a plan for a lakeshore vertical launch site, but only that a horizontal launch site would be at KI Sawyer Airport.

Similarly, on page 12, answering question #8, the County lists various entities as giving enthusiastic political support,” including the Superior Watershed Partnership (SWP); and repeats this claim on page 58 in answer to question #28.

However, this again is a misrepresentation, because the only support that SWP ever gave to a launch plan was the plan to use KI Sawyer. In fact, to correct these misrepresentations, the leadership of SWP recently contacted Governor Whitmer, copying State and Federal legislators, to clarify that SWP never did and never will support a launch site at Granot Loma:

SWP Letter to Gov Whitmer (PDF)  

Additionally, giving the lie to the Marquette County Board’s representations of "no public opposition,” within weeks of the surprise July 2020 announcement of the Granot Loma proposal, a Change.org online petition, started by a student at Northern Michigan University, had secured more than 21,000 signatures (currently close to 22,000) opposing the Granot Loma plan.

Indeed, Citizens for a Safe & Clean Lake Superior (CSCLS), a broad-based citizen coalition, was formed in October of 2020 specifically to fight in every public and legal forum to defeat this terrible idea.

Compounding their past misrepresentation and withholding of facts, the Marquette County Board and MAMA still refuse to act affirmatively to correct false information and provide complete and accurate information. Doing so might allow private investors to reconsider and withdraw from interest in the proposed Granot Loma launch site. 

But most importantly, the citizens of Marquette County are owed no less than full and truthful disclosure. 

Recently, at a meeting of the Marquette City Commission (02/08/2021), a respected public official called for launch promoters to “own up” for what he so aptly and truly described as a “bait and switch” (1:50:25 - 1:51:33):

2/8/21 Marquette City Commission Meeting (YouTube video)

Where We Stand Now:

The bait has been withdrawn and expectations have been thwarted with a completely undesirable alternative. 

Now that Oscoda-Wurtsmith airport has been chosen for the horizontal launch site, and Chippewa County chosen for the command and control center, instead of gaining hundreds and thousands of jobs, Marquette County will end up with only a handful. For example, the Kodiak Alaska Aerospace site, when launching rockets like those proposed here, only employs five people.

Moreover, instead of a spaceport located at an already industrially developed site, this switch to the pristine and ecologically sensitive lakeshore at Granot Loma will require creation of an extremely intense industrial use zone:

  • which will be built on fragile wetlands and hydric soil within 500 feet of the lakeshore.
  • where risk of explosion at launch will require evacuation of at least six nearby family residences.
  • where, after even successful launches, rocket nose cones, 1st. and 2nd. stages, and large battery packs will fall to the lake and ground, causing both hazard and pollution below.
  • where lightning and water towers will pollute the day and nighttime sky views.
  • where extensive clear cutting will strip crucial habitat for many plant and animal species.
  • where, at each launch, a water deluge shockwave suppression system will draw large amounts of water from fragile groundwater tables and/or the already eroding lakeshore.
  • where each explosive launch blast will be seen and heard for miles around, just like the Wallops Island VA launch site, where the Washington Post describes that flights of rockets, just like those planned for Granot Loma, “are visible up and down the Atlantic Coast.”

And although precise boundaries of the proposed launch site have not been specifically mapped for animal species, data provided by Marquette County shows that Granot Loma, as part of Marquette County, shares habitat with threatened and/or endangered species of bats, bird, lynx, and wolf.

This is a bad bargain, by any measure, and one that will degrade the quality of life which draws people here. The scale for both economic health and ecosystem health, weighs heavily against this ill-conceived rocket launch plan. The lakeshore, including the coast at Granot Loma, is not any one private or public landowner’s front or backyard. It is truly our collective lakeshore, a resource we all have a duty to protect and sustain, regardless of our municipal, township or neighborhood borders. 

This is abundantly clear if we consider Granot Loma’s proximity to coastal areas which enhance the quality of life for all our citizens. For example, the proposed launch site, only hundreds of feet from the lakeshore:

For citizens of Marquette and beyond, these venues for outdoor recreation and experience connect people with nature, raise consciousness, and form psychological and world views, not only intrinsically valuable, but ones which also promote sustainable economic growth in Marquette County. 

Marquette County data notes that Marquette ranks in the “Top 25 Places for Millennial Job Seekers” due to its “national recognition for its excellent quality of life,” afforded by “the beautiful UP wilderness” and the virtually uninterrupted southern shoreline of Lake Superior.

Best Value Schools lists NMU among the “Top 50 Outdoor Colleges” because our students “are surrounded by nature…close to Lake Superior, Marquette Mountain and other beautiful locations.” 

Reader’s Digest praises Marquette as up-and-coming for its quality of life created by its wilderness features and waterfront.

In short, people are drawn here by the beauty and connection with our still wild natural environment and all the enhanced quality of life it offers. They do not come here seeking an industrial hub. The creation of an intense industrial use zone for rocket launches in our pristine ecosystem, and the slippery slope into further erosive industrialization of Lake Superior’s shore, will not promote further sustainable growth. 

There is simply no compelling need to locate a purely commercial, industrial launch site next to the largest surface area of freshwater on earth. Many thoroughly developed commercial rocket sites already exist elsewhere, like Kennedy Space Center’s recently approved LC-48 complex which can launch 52 per year, Kodiak Island, or the new Wallops Island, VA, spaceport, referenced above.

By spreading misinformation, and withholding accurate information, MAMA counts on the silence and inaction of the public. The well-rehearsed refrain of ‘don’t worry, there are many steps to go through before a shovel hits the ground’ is calculated to lull the public, while behind the scenes launch promoters solidify their plans.

But a well-organized vocal opposition now, may succeed in discouraging MAMA and its investors from proceeding further; or, if they do initiate a Federal Aviation Administration permitting process, it will be crucial that a large citizen-coalition be already prepared to participate in public comment and hearings to argue cogently and forcefully to defeat the launch plan.  

Let’s protect our lakeshore!

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