Sunday, May 26, 2024

Community airs Bitcoin noise grievances during town hall

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Hood County residents filled the Twin Canyons Ranch venue Monday night to ask questions and voice their concerns regarding the constant fan noise emanating from the Bitcoin mining data center — a problem that has been ongoing for the past year.

The center, located near the Wolf Hollow Power Plant, has been the subject of many complaints and criticisms among many residents who live nearby — and even some who live several miles away.

“After taking office last January, probably the very first phone call I got was, ‘What is this noise that I'm hearing in my backyard?’” Precinct 2 Commissioner Nannette Samuelson explained during the town hall. “I asked the gentleman to give me some more information and if he had access to a decibel meter, if he could take some readings and send it to me. In the meantime, I reached out to Constable (John) Shirley to find out what could be done.”

She explained that by March 29, Shirley had conducted extensive research on the noise levels and had purchased an “industrial strength” decibel meter so he could take several readings all throughout Precinct 2.

Shirley and Samuelson also reached out and met with then-owners of the Bitcoin center, US Bitcoin, on May 4, 2023, to inform the company there had been several complaints about the noise.

Matt Prusak, chief commercial officer for US Bitcoin, attended a Precinct 2 Town Hall meeting June 1, 2023, and explained to the public that a sound barrier wall was in the process of being built around the center. In October 2023, the 24-foot high and almost 2,000-foot-long soundproofing wall was finally completed, with many residents feeling at ease that the issue had been resolved.

Unfortunately, that was not the case.

"End of October, the wall was substantially complete. But the complaints continued,” Samuelson said. “I got phone calls, emails, pretty much on a daily basis, plus social media complaints, so we continued our discussion with US Bitcoin, and they were very interested in solving the problem for us, and for the community. We asked them to come out and go around with us to some of these locations where we had been getting complaints, so we did that on December the sixth, and they committed to doing another sound study.”

Samuelson said she had asked Prusak if US Bitcoin had been provided with any performance guarantees on the soundproofing wall as it hadn’t seemed to mitigate the problem.

However, before US Bitcoin could perform another sound study, Samuelson was made aware that the site was under acquisition by Florida-based miner Marathon Digital, and the company officially took the reins Jan. 12.

Jason Browder, vice president of policy at Marathon Digital and Kevin Rash, mining systems engineer, were both present during the town hall meeting. According to Rash, who spoke during the meeting, Marathon was not aware of the noise issue and had chosen to attend the town hall to solve the problem.

Shirley took the time to explain to the public how decibels are measured and about the current sound ordinances in the state of Texas.

“First of all, I am not a sound expert. I'm a police officer,” he said. “So, when Nannette called me, I knew there were such things as industrial sound meters, because I knew from my time with Houston Police Department that if you were going to enforce the law in Texas with regard to sound, you'd better get yourself a certified sound meter. And of course, when I saw some of the readings that were coming off some of y'all's cellphones, it's very disturbing and upsetting.”

He added that he cannot comment on whether the Bitcoin mining data center is “in violation” of any laws or ordinances, as he is not able to discuss that at this time.

“This is an open investigation right now. It is not over,” he said. “There's been no determination of whether someone is absolutely in violation or not. There's been no charges. We're at the center of this investigation. We will not be discussing evidence in detail at this meeting. It's a complex issue involving three industrial plants on one site and a sound issue.”

Shirley also explained that when it comes to Texas laws, there are not many protections when it comes to sound violations.

Under the penal code, Title 9, Chapter 42, “a noise is presumed to be unreasonable if the noise exceeds a decibel level of 85 after the person making the noise receives notice from a magistrate or peace officer that the noise is a public nuisance.” An offense under this section is a Class C misdemeanor with a punishable fine of up to $500.

He said although the Texas law is mainly for “garage bands” and “house parties,” federal laws like the Noise Control Act of ‘72 and the Quiet Communities Act of ‘78 still exist. However, even though these laws establish a level of 80 decibels as the legal limit, the laws have “not been funded since 1982.”

A common misconception is that a decibel is a measurement of loudness, but Shirley explains that it’s more complicated than that.

"The actual definition of a decibel is a unit used to measure the intensity of a sound or the power level of an electrical signal by comparing it with a given level on a logarithmic scale,” he said. "We can't just report a decibel as a decibel because when you start looking at how decibels are perceived by humans and other animals, different parts of the frequency spectrum affect people and things differently.”

Upon investigating his sound meter, Shirley said he realized his meter has two settings: A and C.

According to nti-audio.com, what humans are physically capable of hearing is represented by the A-Weighting curve, while the C-Weighting curve represents what humans hear when the sound is turned up; we become more sensitive to the lower frequencies.

Shirley explained that when he was testing the two power plants, the difference between the “A” signal and the “C” signal was miniscule. However, when he measured noise from the Bitcoin plant itself, he noticed as much as 10 decibel differences between the “A” and “C” rating.

"I can tell you that the A rating does not count low frequency noise,” he said. “It doesn't exist, but it does exist. The thing is you can't hear it, but you can feel it, and animals can feel it so your body is perceiving it even when you can't hear it.”

He went on to explain that low frequency waves can penetrate barriers and buildings. Many residents, he said, had also complained that the noise from the Bitcoin plant is worse on some days and not others.

 “The fans on those boxes in that Bitcoin farm, they run the exact same speed 24/7, 365,” he said. “In order to cut them off, they'd have to go to each individual bank and shut them off, because they're like the final line of security for them to keep their computers from melting, so the differences in sound from day to day are not differences in the amount of noise coming from that plant, and that's hard to swallow. I have property about a mile from that plant, and I'll tell you some days I can hear it and some days I can't.”

Through his explanation, Shirley revealed to the public that it’s not so much that the residents are hearing the noise; rather they are feeling the vibrations. He also added that low frequency sound waves can cause heart problems, anxiety and nausea.

“Don’t ignore it,” he concluded. “We’re not going to give up.”

Shirley and Samuelson then opened the town hall meeting to allow public comments from residents.

Hood County resident Cheryl Shadden explained that she lives across the street from the Bitcoin plant and said the noise “permeates her home” and her ears ring constantly.

“I have sleep disturbances, it upsets my livestock, I'm nauseated,” she said. “This wall isn't helping. If you go to the other side of the wall, those poor folks, I don't know how they live. But this can't go on. I'm miserable. I'm absolutely miserable.”

One resident commented that Marathon should be worried about bodily injury liability due to auditory damage from the low sound frequency.

Another resident argued that in West Texas, there’s another Bitcoin plant, but it’s enclosed in a soundproof building and is located in the “middle of nowhere.”

Many community members also offered their own solutions to the issue.

One resident brought up the idea of “fighting noise with noise” by using white noise as a solution. However, Shirley explained that noise cancelation is “extremely hard to combat,” especially low frequency sounds.

Another resident suggested Marathon shut down its computers around a certain time every night.

Someone asked if anyone had been in contact with other communities who have successfully solved a similar issue. The question spurred another resident to comment that she had spoken with a few other communities that currently have active lawsuits. She said their decibel readings are “well lower than ours.”

A multitude of residents also voiced concerns regarding migraines, hearing loss, ringing in their ears, vertigo, nausea and behavioral issues in children. One community member also spoke up and commented that he gives his chihuahua tranquilizers because of the noise.

Tim Harris, who lives in Pecan Plantation, said he has to sleep with a sound machine by the head of his bed to offset the issue and added that he is concerned about his property value.

“It's gonna be hard to sell a home,” he said. “I've only been here three years. What the hell did I walk into?"

One resident said she appreciates that representatives from Marathon were present at the meeting, but she has expectations from the company to have a sense of urgency to fix the issue.

Paula McDonald, former Granbury ISD school board member, said that in her research, there was supposedly a paper that was signed by the Hood County Commissioners Court stating that if there was an issue with the power grid, the Bitcoin mining corporation would have to shut down. She asked Samuelson if that paper existed.

"Everything the county has is public information,” Samuelson said. “You can go back to the minutes. You might need to know exactly when the meeting was. I think it was in 2021. That was before I was on the court. There was a specific request that said we need to know that (they) will shut down when there's peak usage.”

Another resident then found out that the meeting in question took place in November 2021.

Jackie Sawicky, member of the Texas Coalition Against Cryptomining, then spoke up and said that in September 2021, China kicked Bitcoin miners out of the country, but then Gov. Greg Abbott said, “Come to Texas. We have a deregulated energy market and cheap energy.”

“Boy did they ever,” she said. “We are now number one in crypto mining. This is, number one, not mining. They are not running anything. The very simplest way to understand what those computers are doing and all that noise every second, they are guessing and throwing away trillions of numbers hoping to hit the magic lottery number. They're not a plant because they don't produce anything. They are not doing anything but squandering, swallowing, wasting your resources, your energy. They are driving up every single Texan's electricity bill by 5% or $1.8 billion in 2022. It's even more now, because that was over a year ago. These facilities get paid to shut down by ERCOT and then they take their deeply discounted energy, and they turn around and they sell it back to the grid at a spot price meaning they are gouging us, and they are driving up our energy costs.”

Sawicky said on Sept. 6, Riot Platforms announced they made $31.7 million from power credits during the August heat wave — the same day that we were 15 minutes away from another Winter Storm Uri incident.

"They will tell you they saved the grid. I will tell you that it is proof positive that they are destabilizing it,” she said. “But they're putting such a massive burden on our grid that we know it has not been fixed since Uri, that they're actually causing the problem they get paid to solve.”

Another resident then turned the tables back on Shirley and Samuelson and asked what they were willing to do as elected officials to mitigate the issue.

"What I'm telling you is we're not going to walk away and make excuses for why we're not continuing to fight,” Shirley said. “The state law is inadequate and I'm working with the county attorney, and when it's determined they're in violation, we will take an enforcement action and we'll keep enforcing. But as law enforcement, all I can do, because of the way the law is written, I can write a ticket. And I'm telling you right now, to a Bitcoin plant, who's making millions of dollars, a $500 ticket, even if it's every day, is not a big enough dissuasion from doing their business. So that's why I'm saying this is a community problem. The time to stop this or to say something or influence people to have a real impact was before it came in, and we missed that. But what we can do now is lobby as hard as we can with our commissioners where we can come together as a community. We're not going to turn our backs on you.”

Samuelson then posed another question to Marathon, asking the company if they plan to go from a 300-megawatt facility to a 600-megawatt facility, as that is another concern posed by the public.

“We've had the site for two weeks,” Browder said. “We were not expecting this, but I will say that something that differentiates ourselves from our predecessors is generic capitalism. So obviously, they bought to make a profit and we're operating, so for us it's a long-term investment into the community; that's why we're here now.”

He also added that Marathon has owned the site for two weeks but that it’s still operated by US Bitcoin. He said they are in conversation now to take over that contract soon.

A resident then brought up the question of how the Bitcoin operation benefits the community, which Samuelson also posed to Marathon.

“This isn't the place,” Rash said. “People's lives are hurting. This isn't the place to talk about any good we've done.”

Samuelson thanked the community for being civil during the town hall as she said she understands how it’s impacting everyone’s lives. She added she will do everything within the law to help improve the situation.

"We're gonna fight this battle with you,” Shirley said. “We're not going away. Again, I own property close to this plant; it affects my life, too.”

Samuelson said if anyone still wishes to voice any complaints or concerns, they are welcome to call Rep. Shelby Slawson, Sen. Brian Birdwell, Shirley or herself.

“I hope you're all ears because there were some very passionate issues,” Samuelson said, addressing Marathon. “It's impacting their lives. They can't live like this. Even if the state law’s 85, and let's say it's 83, but it's constant, that doesn't help. There has to be restoration as a quality of life for all of us that live near here. I'm hoping that you're listening, and we'll hear from you really soon on what your plans are, because I need to communicate with all of these people.”

Samuelson added she will be posting Bitcoin updates on her Facebook page Nannette Samuelson for Hood County Commissioner.

For more information or to voice a concern, email Shirley at JShirley@co.hood.tx.us or Samuelson at nsamuelson@co.hood.tx.us.