Commissioners to BrightRidge on Bitcoin mine: Please shut it down until you can fix noise issue | WJHL
Red Dog Technologies’ spokesman says progress being made toward fixing noise issue in Limestone
JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – Washington County commissioners seemed in no mood for vague answers about a noisy Bitcoin mine in the New Salem community that has had residents upset for about four months.
Commissioners floated ideas ranging from shutting the mine down until the noise is fixed to looking into potential legal avenues if a satisfactory solution doesn’t come soon.
Questioning BrightRidge CEO Jeff Dykes and mine operator Red Dog Technologies’ Todd Napier, more than half the 15 commissioners hinted at or outright called for the mine to be shut down until the noise can be fixed to their — and neighbors’ — general satisfaction.
“Being a good neighbor, I would shut it down until I found the problem,” Commissioner Bryan Davenport said after Napier of Red Dog’s work to find a solution to the noise and that it was “the company’s culture and desire to be good responsible neighbors.”
“I realize the business could be at risk,” Davenport said during the second straight commission meeting featuring discussion about the mine.
“But quality of life is much more important than money. It’s comparing money to your health, so why wouldn’t you just shut it down, fire it back up when you have it fixed instead of lingering this out?”
Napier later told commissioners acoustical louvers placed to mitigate sound at one of the site’s 15 pods have been successful, though he didn’t specify how much.
He said with those and potential changes to the cooling fans that produce the noise “we can achieve results much lower than what’s there.”
Napier said all the pods should have louvers in place within 60 days.
Bitcoin mining uses massive amounts of energy from computer servers — particularly the graphics processing units — to solve complex mathematical problems in order to maintain the security of “blockchain” transactions related to the cryptocurrency.
The problem for neighbors comes from the fans used to cool those computing units. “Even on a home scale the fans required to keep these systems cool can be so loud two people can’t hear each other talk in the same room,” Milligan economics professor David Campbell told News Channel 11 in May.
Sam Zimmerman bought a 10-acre rent-to-own property within several hundred feet of the BrightRidge Bailey Bridge Road substation but later found out plans for the BrightRidge/Red Dog partnership were already underway by then.
Zimmerman told News Channel 11 he was camping in a tent while clearing woods and said the sound was awful. He left the property and lost about $10,000.
“When it first started, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s not so bad. Maybe I can get used to that,’” Zimmerman said. That didn’t happen, and he told commissioners Monday the efforts to stop the noise so far reminded him of “trying to dam a river with a toothpick.”
Zimmerman said neighbors, and people like him who still feel a vested interest in seeing improvement, are ‘starting to catch on that we’re not okay with just talking about ‘it might be better’ or ‘it feels like there might be a solution around the corner.’ We can’t keep that up.”
Commissioner after commissioner weighs in
All of the dozen or so commissioners who spoke on the issue seemed to have about as little patience as neighbors.
Neighbors said so far they’ve noticed no improvements, and commissioners honed in on several concerns: the length of time it’s taking to see results, the lack of specific answers and the way in which the proposal was originally presented during a February 2020 rezoning request.
That request never mentioned a partner, or a Bitcoin mine. It spoke of a “blockchain data center,” with the possibility of a future solar installation.
“Have you not conversed (with Red Dog) about shutting down (temporarily) and if not would you on behalf of the citizens of this county that this is affecting?” Commissioner Jim Wheeler asked Dykes.
Dykes said without specifics that the partners have “had conversations.”
Wheeler asked Dykes to get more specific in those discussions before coming back before the commission — for the third straight month — in September. He also requested that senior executives from Red Dog, who Napier said are the only ones who could decide whether to suspend operations, appear at the September meeting.
“It would be nice if somebody from senior executive management could be here to address that issue too,” Wheeler said. “I realize it’s dollars but it’s a pretty reasonable request under the circumstances with everybody agreeing that this is a real problem for the folks out there,” Wheeler said.
Napier told commissioners Red Dog remains committed to improving the situation and that it has installed an acoustic louver at one of 15 segments at the mine and that it has resulted in some improvement. He said all 15 should be installed within 60 days. Red Dog is also in talks with German manufacturer ebm-Papst, which has a local factory, about the potential for quieter fans.
Several commissioners said they regretted their affirmative votes, with Kent Harris, who represents New Salem, saying he felt commissioners had been “hoodwinked.”
Harris later asked County Mayor Joe Grandy, who represents the county on the BrightRidge board, whether he knew BrightRidge was planning for a joint project with a Bitcoin mine operator — and if he did, why he didn’t mention it to commissioners.
“I had the same information you all did,” Grandy said, adding when pressed by Harris that as a board member he was given no information about a Bitcoin mine project. “I had no reason to dig any further so I’ll take the same responsibility.”
Harris said he’d served on the Erwin Utilities Board and told Grandy if he wasn’t specifically informed of something that important, “at your next meeting I would sure be rattling some chains.”
“I’ll say it again, I’ll take the same responsibility of all the people who voted for it — that we didn’t ask enough questions,” Grandy said.
“Then would you go on the record tonight and say that you agree with us it should be shut down?” Harris asked.
“I think either the sound needs to be mitigated or it needs to be shut down,” Grandy responded.
Davenport said he understood BrightRidge’s interest in the partnership — Red Dog already uses twice as much electricity as its second-biggest customer — was “good business.”
“But somewhere along the line we didn’t do our due diligence, and I’ll take part of that ownership as a commissioner,” Davenport said.
“I no longer can just look at something at face value on this page,” Davenport said. “When it comes to me I have to in deep and make sure of what’s going in.”
Davenport called the situation “a black eye for all of us.”
He said he realizes BrightRidge is in a contract, but he said the commission should “look somehow at what can we do as a commission legally to get involved here as well.
“We need to go ahead and start getting lined up and support our people that this is not going to stand and we need to see what we can do and what leverage we have for the people in that area, and we need to start doing that immediately,” Davenport said.
“Whatever that is that’s legal, we need to get behind this, and I would beg BrightRidge to join us.”
What about the contract?
Whether the operation can be shut down is an open question.
Commissioner Robbie Tester asked Dykes directly about the contract, which runs for five and a half years with yearly automatic renewals thereafter. He repeated a question from the July meeting as to whether the contract had a clause for either party to get out of it.
Dykes said he’d looked into it and that “there’s no real way of getting out of the contract early.”
News Channel 11 obtained a copy of the contract and other documents through a public records request in June. Section six spells out the five year and six month duration and says:
“The term of this contract shall be five years and six months. This contract shall begin on the date of delivery electricity hereunder is actually begun … and shall be considered renewed for a year from the expiration of said term, and from year to year thereafter, unless written notice to the contrary is given by either party to the other at least three (3) months prior to the expiration of the term of the contract or any existing renewal thereof.”
Whether that notice could apply to the remainder of the current contract or only to ongoing renewals. The unless written notice to the contrary seems grammatically to refer back to consideration of renewal. The term of the initial contract stands alone in its own sentence.