Sunday, July 14, 2024

County discusses possibility of funding sound study for Bitcoin noise

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The Hood County Commissioners Court entertained an hour-long discussion last week about the possibility of funding an independent sound study for the Bitcoin data center on Wolf Hollow Court.

“I put this (agenda item) on here to bring to light what's happening in the approximate 10-mile radius of the Marathon data center,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Nannette Samuelson said during the June 11 meeting. “I've heard from many, many people around the area about the loss of value in their homes and property along with other issues that I'm sure we'll be speaking about today. I have heard from people as far away as Indian Harbor and DeCordova. This is a risk we need to discuss.”

For more than a year, residents have complained about the sound emanating from the Bitcoin data center owned by Marathon Digital Holdings LLC. According to residents, the low-frequency hum has greatly impacted their lives and health, with many complaining about vertigo, migraines, hearing loss and nausea.

While the agenda item regarding the sound study was eventually tabled for the July 9 meeting to account for more research and information, several residents spoke up to voice their health concerns as well as the impact the noise has had on their property values.

Tom Weeks, who has lived on Mitchell Bend Court for the last 27 years, said his property has become “absolutely worthless” and that his peace has been taken from him due to the Bitcoin noise.

"I cannot even sit on my deck and enjoy a cup of coffee,” he said. “My house vibrates. The (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram was there the other day, noticing liquids and jars vibrating. I'm sick of it. ... The problem is, if we fix this problem, this is going to be stuck to us for years. There's a stigma. It's going to be ‘hands off this area.’ I'm concerned. I don't like losing money, I don't like watching my neighbors lose money, and I'd like some peace and quiet. There's nobody here to blame, but I just think something has got to be done. It's ridiculous.”

Larry Potts, who lives on Contrary Creek Road, said he and his wife live within a quarter mile of the Bitcoin plant. He said he is not opposed to people making money, but he does oppose the sound pollution. He also brought up how his grandchildren had to come down $100,000 when they sold their home, as they had to disclose that the noise was continuous.

"You lose a lot of money,” he said. “You can't hide that thing when you sell real estate. ... I've had some extremely strong health issues, including a pacemaker because of a heart blockage. I have gone almost deaf in my ears because of the sound. You ever lay at night and listen to the crickets sing? I hear them all the time now."

Resident Cheryl Shadden said she recently contested her property taxes with the Hood Central Appraisal District. She said her taxes have now decreased 50% since living across the street from the Bitcoin plant.

"Realistically, what this has taken from me is $400,000 in my property value,” she said. “My property —like everybody else's in this area — is unsellable. I can't just pick up and move. I've paid for my property for 25 years. I've got five years left to pay on my property. For what? I've appreciated nothing."

Resident of Pecan Plantation Ward Dunn said his wife has been a realtor in four different states, including Texas. He said she told him if they ever wanted to sell their home, they would have to disclose the noise in the listing.

"We live near the back gate overlooking River Bend directly at the Bitcoin data mining center,” he said. “We have continuing headaches, our dogs won't go out at night, and I can name many, many other things. We are definitely in favor of taking action regarding our property values and funding an independent sound study.”

Husband-and-wife duo Nick and Virginia Browning also spoke about the noise, with Nick Browning saying he doesn’t believe Marathon is being a good neighbor like representatives from the company have previously claimed. Virginia Browning said she also suffers from headaches and vertigo. She added the noise has caused animals like deer and coyotes to vacate their property and that she can no longer hear birds flapping their wings outside.

"We've lost just about all the animals out there,” she said. “They can't stand it, and neither can we. We do need help from somebody. I don't know what you (have) to do, but gosh dang it, do something.”

Contrary Creek residents Daniel and Deanna Lakey — another husband-and-wife duo — also took turns at the podium. Daniel Lakey said they no longer spend their evenings watching the sun go down. He also said the sound waves from the plant June 1 measured 81 decibels at their residence. Deanna Lakey, who is a cardiovascular critical care nurse and hospice RN, said her grandchildren have suffered from ear infections and ear pain. She said her husband has also recently suffered from heart issues but was told by their doctor that the symptoms were more than likely caused by the sound decibels.

"Our medical doctor told my husband, ‘You do not need to go to the emergency room. This is not a heart attack. This is going to be related to what's going on out there with the noise.’” Deanna Lakey said. “Some cardiovascular symptoms have been going on (with me). It is not an internal problem with my heart. ... There's something outside of my internal mechanisms that is making my heart beat to a different rhythm. It doesn't cause chest pain; it causes worry. You do not have control of your heart."

Shannon Wolf, Precinct Chair for 211, said the sound readings Constable John Shirley has taken from the plant far exceed the standards outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Federal Aviation Administration, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"They're saying anything above 65 is going to cause irreversible damage to people — that's on the government's website,” she said. “The government backs it up with research. ... We're asking that this court do everything in your power to investigate and end this humanitarian crisis. Have no doubt the citizens in Precinct 2 are resolved. We are tenacious, we are organized and we vote.”

While several residents were in favor of the county funding an independent sound study about the noise, some residents said they didn’t believe the study would lead to any solution or relief.

"No matter how badly someone's private property development impacts your life ... there's nothing the county can do,” resident Elizabeth Mercer said. “Flat out in Texas, property rights — if you're in the county as we are — there's nothing that anybody can do.”

Mercer stated that Senate Bill 1929 — relating to the registration of virtual currency mining facilities in the ERCOT power region that demand a large load of interruptible power — has already been approved. She said, additionally, House Bill 591 — relating to an exemption from the severance tax for gas produced from certain wells — would give the plant more tax exemptions.

She said Senate Bill 1751, which relates to the regulation and tax treatment of facilities, would’ve been helpful, but the bill died in state affairs committee.

"I hope that you guys do something, but on the record, as hard as my heart hurts for these folks, there isn't a reason for tax dollars to be spent on the sound study that isn’t going to do anything for them,” Mercer said. “Until the state addresses this, it doesn't matter how bad you feel, you can't do anything, and because of this, I want you to explain to me why all of the other precincts in the county are being asked to fund a sound survey when you can't do anything about this."

Resident Tina Brown said she also had some concerns about the legality concerning the county using taxpayer dollars to fund a sound study.

"I'm wondering how much this sound study would cost, and can we even legally do something and spend taxpayer money on something that we can't do anything about? It sounds like we may end up in more trouble legally by doing that,” she said. “Has anybody brought this to the county attorney's attention about spending money on something that we have no authority over?”

In addressing Brown’s concerns, Hood County Judge Ron Massingill asked County Attorney Matt Mills to give the court his legal position on the matter.

Mills said he wasn’t aware of the agenda item but said he has been working with Shadden for months to see if there’s a civil action that can be taken. He also said he agrees HCAD is over-evaluating properties, however, he still was unsure as to whether the county can legally fund an independent sound study.

"The way it's worded, it's like 'OK, well, who are you hiring?’ ‘How much is it going to be?’ ‘What account does it come from?’ To my knowledge, that's not on the agenda,” he said. “But then the next question is, ‘OK, you do an independent sound study,’ and the study comes back and says, ‘Well, the sound is really bad.’ OK, well, now what? ... What does the county do, then?"

"We take this information that's from non-biased experts, and then we can use that as we go to give information to our state rep, or our state senator, or the committee that is working on legislation for this and say, ‘Here's the impact,’” Samuelson said. “These are engineering experts that do this all over the world, and it's not as much as you might think; it's less than $6,000.”

Samuelson said once this information becomes public, it could then be used by journalists for future articles and could help change the state law — essentially giving counties the same authority as cities regarding noise ordinances and similar mandates.

Mills added he would like to discuss the situation with Austin lawyer David Brooks and in the meantime, the court could conduct more research to figure out who to hire for the project.

Following the discussion, Precinct 4 Commissioner Dave Eagle made a motion to reschedule the agenda item for July 9 to allow the unanswered questions to be answered. Precinct 3 Commissioner Jack Willson seconded the motion and it passed unanimously.