“The natural beauty and tranquility of our area is in jeopardy,” Cyndie Roberson’s petition on Change.org reads. “Your community could be next.”
Since January 2021, the 28,000 citizens in Cherokee County, North Carolina, have dealt with 24/7 noise and vibration from a Bitcoin mining facility run on land owned by ANKR Mining Solutions Inc. When construction began on a second crypto mine Nov. 15, 2021, Roberson drafted a petition that was signed by 2,000 people in an attempt to stop it from opening, amid concerns over increased pollution and ecological damage. According to Roberson, at least 700 of these signatures came from citizens in the county.
Yet the second crypto mine opened anyway this past February. “We used to have bald eagles off our deck, and we haven’t seen them in months,” Roberson told The Daily Beast. “So many deer have been hit on the road right out in front of it [the crypto mining facility].”
Phoebe Thompson, who lives across from the new facility, has also seen an increase in the amount of deer being hit on the road and horses trying to escape their pasture. Anthropogenic noise pollution, like the constant humming of a crypto mine, can alter the behaviors and breeding patterns of animals and can even affect pollination of certain plants.
Despite these disruptions, three out of the five members of the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners refuse to impose any zoning regulations. That includes the head of the board, Dan Eichenbaum, a staunch libertarian who runs a podcast called Dr. Dan’s Freedom Forum.
These types of sites are springing up more and more in the U.S. these days, after China banned crypto mining in 2020. But noise pollution is just a minor part of the environmental devastation wrought by crypto mining. Annually, Bitcoin uses as much electrical energy as Thailand and has a carbon footprint comparable to that of the Czech Republic.
That footprint is a consequence of the way Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are validated—a protocol called Proof of Work.
“Once you realize what Proof of Work is really about, you’ll get even more angry,” Alex de Vries, a researcher of sustainability of crypto assets at the at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, told The Daily Beast. Information is added to a public database called the blockchain in units called blocks. “For every block that is created, whoever creates that block gets a reward of 6.25 bitcoins,” de Vries, who is also the creator of Digiconomist, a platform that has documented Bitcoin’s energy usage, explained. “Now, there’s a big catch to that, because in order to be able to create a block, you actually have to participate in what is effectively a massive number guessing game.”
Only the machine that guesses this number correctly can create the next block. “The whole Bitcoin network is just generating 200 quintillion of guesses every second of the day, nonstop,” de Vries said. “The more computational power you have, the bigger your chance of getting lucky and being the one to obtain that reward.”
This cycle continues in perpetuity every 10 minutes to create a block that holds, on average, information for about three transactions. “The noise that people are hearing is just machines playing a guess-the-number game. And pretty much all of that information they generate is completely useless,” de Vries said. “It’s not like, if they guessed incorrectly, that it has any further purpose. It’s just immediately discarded.”
Since crypto mining was banned in China, the amount of the Bitcoin network using renewable energy sources has dropped from 41.6 to 25.1 percent. This change may be attributed to the shift from hydroelectric energy usage in China to natural gas in the U.S. As other nations consider banning the mining of cryptocurrency, companies may continue shifting operations to the U.S., using the excess energy within the electrical grid for mining. With more cryptocurrency mining facilities opening in the U.S., people around the country are looking for ways to stop them.
The residents of Cherokee County who have mobilized against these mines have begun looking for lessons in other communities that have managed to get rid of similar facilities.
On March 14, a judge in Washington County, Tennessee, ruled that a crypto mine owned by Red Dog Technologies is not allowed to operate under current zoning conditions in the county. The lawsuit was brought forth by the county itself after months of complaints from citizens, but it may be another year until the mine shuts down. The attorney representing Red Dog is currently appealing the order.
Missoula County, Montana, originally welcomed crypto mining in 2019, but after complaints from concerned citizens, it clamped down on its ordinance. On Feb. 11, 2021, the Board of County Commissioners adopted strict zoning regulations for mining operations which also required them to address the environmental impact of their operation due to energy consumption, noise pollution, and electronic waste.
“They're a great example of how to get rid of it,” Roberson said. “They have the best ordinance that is crypto mine-specific and the one that was already there shut down within a year.” Since then, crypto mining facilities have avoided the county in favor of places with looser regulations.
Cherokee County has turned out to be one of those destinations. The situation is made more challenging by a lack of transparency from the Board of Commissioners and ANKR. The mines are highly secretive and were set up without consultation or feedback from the county’s residents—leaving citizens like Thompson and Roberson in the dark. One day, traffic was diverted as new electrical poles were being set up, and later construction began in a cornfield. “We were never told any reasons why,” Thompson said. “I didn't think much more of it until I noticed there was a hum in the air one evening in September.”
Since then, the noise has been a constant unwelcome presence, intensifying at night and loud enough to be heard inside the house. She only discovered that the mysterious new building across the road was a crypto mine from a local Facebook group.
More industrial-sized fans are required to cool the crypto facility in warmer weather, which makes the noise even louder. “The worst that it gets so far that I’ve clocked has been 70 decibels,” Thompson explained. Seventy decibels is approximately as loud as the rumbling of a washing machine. While there are no peer-reviewed studies of crypto mine noise pollution, the general negative impacts of noise pollution on psychological health and physical health have been pretty well studied.
“Even though they’re located right along a public road, they [security] have put up signs saying we can’t take photos or videos of the mine [even from across the road],” Thompson said. There aren’t any visible signs and the only reason people in the town know the name of the crypto mining company—ANKR Mining Solutions Inc.—is through public land records.
County activists and protesters have attempted to ask questions and get closer to the facility, to no avail. “They have armed guards, like a private security force, and they have chased some of our protesters down the road,” Roberson said. “We’ve had to make formal complaints about their aggressive nature.”
The company is registered to Chandler Song and Ryan Fang, the same individuals who created PrimeBlock, which hires people to work at the Cherokee County crypto mine. ANKR Mining Solutions Inc, the company that owns the land, is registered and active in Delaware, North Carolina, and Tennessee but does not have a website or significant online presence. Exponential Digital, the company referred to during Board of Commissioner meetings, is currently active and registered in Texas, California, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania but does not have a website or significant online presence. Meanwhile, PrimeBlock is currently registered in Texas, California, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania and is the only entity with a website. The contact email on PrimeBlock’s website isn’t functional and the CEO of the company, Gaurav Budhrani, did not respond to The Daily Beast for comment.
Song and Fang are also the creators of a blockchain called Ankr, which CoinDesk describes as “an open-source, blockchain-based cloud computing platform that uses idle computer resources and redirects them toward crypto-based ventures like bitcoin mining.” Ankr also sits on the Bitcoin Mining Council, a forum of companies involved in Bitcoin and Bitcoin mining.
Song told The Daily Beast over direct messages on Twitter that “Ankr doesn’t do mining,” and that PrimeBlock, and their other registered businesses like ANKR and Exponential Digital are separate organizations. He declined to make himself available for further interviews.
On April 1, PrimeBlock announced a merger with 10X Capital Venture Acquisition Corp. II, receiving a business valuation of $1.25 billion. The press release mentions that the company has 12 mining facilities across North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. “PrimeBlock strives to be a responsible, ethical company and community member,” the press release reads. “The Company [PrimeBlock] aims to minimize its environmental impact and generate employment opportunities in the communities where it maintains operations.” Neither the pitch deck nor press release make any mention of noise pollution or describe future efforts for collaborating directly with the community.
According to the Cherokee County activists who spoke with The Daily Beast, Eichenbaum is the only person in touch with the CEO from the crypto mining company. In multiple emails with Roberson and her husband shown to The Daily Beast, Eichenbaum mentions his meetings with the CEO of ANKR, without identifying who that person is, or whether any other members of the board are involved in the talks. During Board meetings, Eichenbaum fields most of the questions about the crypto mine.
Roberson said she feels like Eichenbaum is “indifferent to the problems of crypto mining at best,” and that his actions on the board make him appear “incredibly sympathetic” to the crypto mining operation. According to the citizens that have spoken with The Daily Beast, he and two other members of the Board, Randy Phillips and Gary Westmoreland, seem to support the crypto mining operations in Cherokee County; while the remaining two members, Cal Stiles and Jan Griggs, are outnumbered. During public forums Eichenbaum usually fields questions relating to the crypto mines and is the only one of the commissioners to mention having contact with the company’s CEO. Eichenbaum and the other board members did not respond to The Daily Beast for comment.
The Board of Commissioners meetings, which are streamed live on the Facebook page of Cherokee Scout (a local news outlet), typically include citizens relaying concerns about the crypto mine only to receive a dismissive response.
“I was the very first person to speak at a commissioner’s meeting about it,” Thompson said, referring to a November 1 meeting. “And the first thing he [Eichenbaum] said to me was that I should have gone to talk to them myself before flying off the handle.” Thompson added that a sound barrier was later added to the crypto mine, though it didn’t really reduce the noise levels.
In another meeting, a citizen raised concerns over power outages caused by the mine. “I’ve had at least 12 power outages in the last four months,” he said. “It’s not OK Dr. Eichenbaum, you don’t live there.” Eichenbaum said in response: “Don’t be menacing.”
Near the end of the same meeting, several citizens mentioned other nearby counties with the same issue. “The light, the noise, the garbage: everything is going to escalate,” one woman said. “I don’t want to just come in and complain but I really do think it's your duty [Board of Commissioners] to set up a task force … I think everybody wants a peaceful, beautiful community.” Eichenbaum answered: “A peaceful and beautiful community also has a live and let live golden rule as well.”
Most people who spoke to The Daily Beast were not surprised by Eichenbaum’s responses. He’s known to be outspoken and perceived as intimidating by some activists. In the past, he has even filed suit against a friend who ran against him in a local election, accusing him of slander.
“The point of any of my voicing of opinion is always about the suffering of the people living this daily hell,” Lynell Morris, another Cherokee County activist protesting the crypto mines, told The Daily Beast. In a call with another resident to discuss the crypto mines, Morris was once asked if she carried a gun for protection. “I silently began thinking about the potential seriousness of this situation and thought deeply about their insinuation,” she said.
Then citizens tried to receive help through county attorney John Noor, and presented a draft of a noise ordinance in a December meeting. A date was set in January to hold a hearing for the proposed noise ordinance, but Noor changed his mind on the matter and the hearing was never held. Noor did not respond to requests for comment.
In the meantime, it means the crypto mines can continue to operate as usual, actively harming the environment and wellbeing of citizens. It is important to note that some states are recognizing Bitcoin mining as a problem. On April 27th, the New York State Assembly passed a bill proposing a two-year moratorium on Proof of Work crypto mining, but will need to be approved in the state Senate before being enacted into law.
Representatives from ANKR Mining Solutions were supposed to join a Board of Commissioners’ Meeting in early April but this was postponed. In an April 18 meeting, Eichenbaum explained that the company, cited as Exponential Digital (and not ANKR), did not come to the meeting over concerns of employee safety. Instead, the Cherokee County attorney Darryl Brown, read a letter from the company that stated that a recent power outage in the mining facility occurred after someone used a gun to shoot a nearby power line.
“I spoke to the Sheriff's office and they are investigating if this actually happened,” Roberson told the Daily Beast, adding she was frustrated it was presented as fact rather than pending an investigation. “From talking to them it is unlikely from the evidence, however, [it] could be possible.”
The company’s letter stated that the recent addition of a sound barrier to the mining facility reduced noise levels in the community, per a survey conducted on April 13. The data behind this sound survey was not openly shared. During that meeting, Morris speculated that the fans in the crypto mine might have been turned down during the survey. The Daily Beast was unable to reach anyone at the mining facility for comment.
Morris then asked Eichenabum whether the other commissioners had a say with the crypto mine and the community. “I do not decide what is OK for this community,” Eichenbaum answered. “Everyone on this board has had a say.” Morris then asked each of the commissioners individually whether they had a chance to provide input for a solution to the crypto mining situation. Griggs and Stiles said no. Neither Westmoreland or Phillips provided a clear answer as to their role.
For her part, Thompson’s frustrations have boiled over into the decision to move out of Cherokee County. “I decided that I'm leaving because I don’t want to live in a county that will just bend over backwards to help these businesses that give absolutely nothing back to the community,” she said. The crypto companies have contributed too much to “the destruction of what makes the community special.”