The Washington Post Sunday

A rural community’s cryptocurr­ency mine: Noise like a jet that ‘never leaves’

Hundreds of operators, attracted by cheap power, have moved to areas once prized for their quiet

- BY KEVIN WILLIAMS

murphy, n.c. — It’s midnight, and a jetlike roar is rumbling up the slopes of Poor House Mountain. Except there are no planes overhead, and the nearest commercial airport is 80 miles away.

The sound is coming from a cluster of sheds at the base of the mountain housing a cryptocurr­ency data center, operated by the San Francisco-based firm PrimeBlock. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, powerful computers perform the complex computatio­ns needed to “mine,” or create, digital currencies. And those noisegener­ating computers are kept cool by huge fans.

“It’s like living on top of Niagara Falls,” said Mike Lugiewicz, whose home lies less than 100 yards from the mine.

“When it’s at its worst, it’s like sitting on the tarmac with a jet engine in front of you. But the jet never leaves. The jet never takes off. It’s just annoying. It’s just constant annoyance,” he said.

After China cracked down on cryptocurr­ency mining last year, dozens of cryptocurr­ency companies and hundreds of independen­t miners set up operations in sparsely populated parts of the United States, lured by the availabili­ty of cheap and plentiful power.

But they have been followed in some areas by noise complaints against the computers and the fans, leading to lawsuits and community action and sharply dividing local population­s.

Across the nation, there are relatively few standards for noise pollution.

Although the Environmen­tal Protection Agency establishe­d a noise pollution program in 1972 under the Clean Air Act, the agency has generally left noise issues up to state and local authoritie­s. In North Carolina, noise-control regulation­s are usually the responsibi­lity of counties, according to the state’s Department of

Environmen­tal Quality.

North Carolina’s Cherokee County, where the PrimeBlock cryptocurr­ency mine is located, has had a noise ordinance on the books since 1999, but locals say it is unevenly enforced and does not specify a decibel threshold.

Enhanced by weather, topography and the surroundin­g silence in this remote part of Appalachia, the unrelentin­g noise quickly became intolerabl­e for Lugiewicz, who moved to Poor House Mountain from Brooksvill­e, Fla., in 2005.

“As soon as they started the first container, we said: ‘That’s it. We’re done,’ ” Lugiewicz said.

A sensor placed on Lugiewicz’s property by The Washington Post captured noise levels roughly every five minutes over nearly three weeks. In nearly every reading — 98 percent of the time, day or night — decibel levels were above 55, about the noise of a normal conversati­on.

More than 30 percent of the readings exceeded 60 decibels — high enough that if they were in D.C., they would violate the city’s daytime residentia­l noise ordinances. Estimates from the National Park Service show that expected environmen­tal sound levels in the area should be around 41 decibels.

Kurt Fristrup, a former Park Service scientist who studied noise impacts on rural environmen­ts, compared the noise near Lugiewicz’s home to living close to a very busy road without normal pulses in traffic.

Imagine “45 sedans traveling close together nonstop on a threelane road at 35 miles per hour,” Fristrup said.

Chandler Song, a co-founder and co-owner of PrimeBlock who serves as the company’s chief innovation officer, said he had received no noise complaints from county officials and that he had visited the facility.

“I have been to the site many times during constructi­on,” he said in an interview. “About 200 yards from the site, we stood in front of the house to check noise levels. It sounds like an air-conditioni­ng unit in the yard. Every night, it was like air conditioni­ng.”

However, he said the mine is building noise insulation walls and that most PrimeBlock sites will adopt newer and quieter cooling systems in the coming months.

County officials did not respond to emails or texts requesting comment.

The Murphy Electric Power Board did not respond to specific questions about the mine or noise complaints but provided a general statement saying: “When an individual or corporatio­n submits an applicatio­n for electric service, pays the proper constructi­on fees, provides a security deposit, and agrees to abide by our service rules and regulation­s we strive to provide safe, reliable electric service.”

Lugiewicz, who works mainly from home, soon gave up on using the expansive deck he completed a month before the mine started operations, where he had hoped to perch with his laptops and listen to the birdsong. Instead of using his “outdoor office,” he retreated indoors and soundproof­ed his home.

He and his wife began building a new home about 1.6 miles up the mountain, far enough away that the mine is only a distant, barely audible hiss.

“We were planning to move anyway, but the mine definitely sped those plans up,” Lugiewicz said.

Poor House Mountain is dotted with stately homes that belie the name. Rows of townhouses and condos sit on the edge of an old golf course that has been shuttered for five years and is slowly being reclaimed by Southern grasses and pines.

No one thought much of anything in the summer of 2021 when a long-vacant field across the street from the mountain was cleared and power poles erected. A few small buildings that looked like storage units started going up, and some thought it was just another place for people to stash their stuff. Not pretty to look at, but harmless.

But crypto mining requires serious computing power. Creating a single bitcoin requires 1,556.99 kilowatt-hours of electricit­y, according to Digiconomi­st, which monitors crypto consumptio­n — about the same amount used to power an average house for 53 days.

The crypto mining centers also need those huge fans to cool them, especially during broiling Southern summers.

When crypto mining companies were forced out of China last year, the ample power available from the Tennessee Valley Authority made Appalachia an appealing spot. At least three mines have opened in North Carolina’s Cherokee County since 2020, but as there is no registrati­on requiremen­t for cryptocurr­ency data centers, finding out how many are operating in the state is difficult.

North Carolina’s secretary of state’s office, which regulates businesses in the state, said crypto mines fall under the North Carolina Utilities Commission. And Sam Watson, general counsel for the NCUC, wrote in an email: “The Commission does not keep a registry of crypto mines” (or any other retail customer).

Local utilities simply need to approve the required paperwork, and local building permits need to be up to date.

PrimeBlock’s Song said the company was drawn to Cherokee County because of the TVA’s supply of renewable energy, created by hydroelect­ric dams as well as other methods.

The company operates 12 facilities in North America, concentrat­ed in North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky, according to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

But some communitie­s have expressed alarm about crypto coming to town. A group of citizens protested a proposed crypto mine in Pitt County, N.C., forcing plans to be shelved this year. In Limestone, Tenn., county commission­ers reached a settlement with a crypto mine operator to move a facility to an industrial park.

Unlike cities such as Asheville, N.C., and Johnson City, Tenn., which turned into mini-metropolis­es during the pandemic, Murphy is still a place where people go to get away. The area attracts people in search of quiet, including many retired police officers and members of the military.

Dennis Futch, who retired after 28 years in the Army that included tours in Iraq, Afghanista­n and Kuwait, bought a place on Poor House Mountain in 2016, following his parents to the area.

“I needed quiet. I had to have it, and that is why I came,” he said.

If there wasn’t total hush, it was nature’s noise — territoria­l turkeys or summer cicadas, not gun battles or urban caw. Occasional­ly there’d be the distant rumble of a truck on U.S. Highway 64, some two miles away.

Now, however, there is almost constant noise, especially prevalent at night, when other sounds are hushed. “Sound levels generally drop at night, so noises that might not seem so loud during the day suddenly become that much more prominent,” said Fristrup, formerly of the Park Service. He added that the lower temperatur­es at night in the mountains of western North Carolina also trap and amplify the sound.

“It’s changed our way of life up here,” Futch said.

The noise has even forced Futch to come down the mountain to attend county commission meetings, although public places make him uncomforta­ble.

“Going to town is usually an ordeal for me, and I can sit at

home all day and be perfectly content,” Futch said. “I just wanted to see what was going on and what the county would do about it, but it was not easy to go. It was noisy, and I usually stay away from that.”

Even the drive to the meeting was difficult, Futch says, with highway debris or constructi­on bringing up memories of roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanista­n.

He came away from the meeting convinced that nothing could be done and that he was stuck.

“You just can’t easily pick up and move, because nobody’s going to buy your home,” Futch said. “You could pack up and move to a nice, quiet area and figure, this is where I’m going to spend the rest of my life, and, lo and behold,” a crypto mine moves in next door.

For Gene Johnson, 80, who served 40 years in the Navy as a gunner and engine room officer, the noise has intruded on a retirement he had hoped to spend playing music with friends.

His home on Beaver Ridge Trail is just a quarter-mile from the mine. Though he’s hard of hearing from his years as a gunner, he says, the sound is still overpoweri­ng.

Johnson plays in a local band called the Sea Notes, which performs country, classic rock, bluegrass and some Cajun music at clubs and festivals.

He keeps chairs on his front porch, welcoming any company who might meander by wanting to share some songs. But one has to strain to hear the notes over the whirring mine.

“It bothers me, and it’s a nuisance. Playing music is part of my life. You try playing music with that noise. I keep time with the fans from the mine instead of the guys in my band,” Johnson said.

“The noise makes me feel really angry. It’s embarrassi­ng to have people come over and visit you with that noise there,” he said.

But for other locals, the mines offer economic opportunit­y. In the town of Marble, 15 miles away, the opening of one of the largest crypto mining facilities in the country was met by locals with a collective shrug.

Built in the shell of a former denim mill, Austin-based Core Scientific’s mine operates day and night, but the computers and cooling systems are primarily enclosed. When asked for comment, Sofia Coon, a spokespers­on for Wachsman, a communicat­ions firm representi­ng Core Scientific, said the company “has no comment at this time.”

For residents of this mix of double-wides and tidy ranch houses, the noise is not that different from that of the mill that turned out textiles in three busy shifts. Or the chipping mill where logs are processed a mile away.

“It was loud, louder than the crypto mine,” Vicky Martin, a 67-year-old retired nurse, said of the textile mill. She described semis rumbling up to the factory, industrial equipment clanging and shift workers coming and going.

Martin acknowledg­es that outof-town visitors are often incredulou­s that the crypto mine across the street doesn’t bother her.

The noise levels from the mine regularly reach 60-plus decibels. But she says, while enjoying the view from her back deck: “Life is what you make it. I am not going to let [the crypto mine] take away the joy of my life.”

She went on: “Outsiders stop by and ask me how it can’t bother me, but it doesn’t.”

The complex algorithmi­c calculatio­ns that go into determinin­g what qualifies as noise pollution remain an inexact science. One person’s innocuous white noise is another’s torture.

One of the determinin­g factors is the difference between baseline background noise and the introduced sound, experts say.

The crypto mine near Poor House Mountain is competing with quiet. The one in Marble blends in with the chipping mill and highway noise.

Rachel Buxton, an assistant professor of conservati­on biology at Carleton University in Ottawa who has studied the impact of noise pollution in rural areas, says that even a five-decibel increase can have a dramatic impact.

“Humans have a finite amount of attention. If you are too busy paying attention to noise, there is less cognitive ability for other things,” Buxton said.

That additional noise load can cause stress and lead to negative health effects, she says.

For wildlife, the picture is even worse, Buxton says.

“At its very simplest, the noise can mask important sounds, like wildlife listening for approachin­g predators or listening for mates. Covering up these sounds can be the difference between life and death,” Buxton said.

And even noise that doesn’t outwardly bother people can have noticeable health effects, according to Stephen Stansfeld, a professor of psychiatry at Queen Mary University of London who has studied the issue.

He said continual exposure to noise can cause elevated blood pressure, which can increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.

“Even if you are sleeping through the noise, it still is having an effect,” Stansfeld said, adding that people’s expectatio­ns play a significan­t role.

“If they are expecting a place to be quiet, then the noise can really get them down,” he said.

Stansfeld also says that people’s connection to noise can affect their perception.

“If someone lives near an airport and they work at the airport, the noise doesn’t bother them, because that is their livelihood,” Stansfeld said.

Some of nature’s noise can register loudly on the decibel scale: tree frogs and flocks of birds, for instance. But Stansfeld says those sounds are not continuous and are part of the built-in expectatio­ns of people who have chosen to live in a natural area.

Introducin­g a continuous source of unwanted man-made noise is a different issue, he says.

“This is even more true in people suffering from PTSD, where these noises can sometimes trigger unpleasant memories of trauma,” Stansfeld said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Stansfeld says introducin­g noise into an environmen­t can affect people’s sense of control over their lives, leading to longterm anxiety as well as other psychologi­cal and physiologi­cal effects.

That’s what Patricia Callahan says happened to her. Three years ago, she bought a condo a quarter of a mile from the base of Poor House Mountain. Then came the crypto mine. “It has ruined my life,” she said. Callahan says she filed a noise complaint with the Cherokee County sheriff in October 2021, shortly after the mine became operationa­l. An officer met with her and took notes on her complaint. “But I never got a call back,” Callahan said.

She says the sound has destroyed her efforts to recover from a debilitati­ng car crash in 2008, in which a teenage driver T-boned her car as she was driving her three children home from school.

The young man who plowed into her didn’t survive. Callahan says she was left with traumatic brain injury and the need for specialize­d prism eyeglasses, forcing her to drive hours to see an optical specialist for regular care. Most of all, she says, she needed quiet.

Now, Callahan says, the mine’s noise crowds her thoughts. And it is louder at night and on weekends, she says, the very times she is trying to relax.

But Song says the computers run at the same capacity all the time. “They are operating consistent­ly at the same level 24/7,” he said.

“When there is noise happening, it takes up space in my brain where I can’t do other things,” Callahan said, closing her eyes and rocking as she talked.

She has taken to sleeping with earplugs and monitoring the noise through a decibel app on her phone. She tracks the sound for anyone who will listen to her, presenting the record to county commission­ers and posting the numbers to local Facebook groups.

Callahan looks for patterns and trends, anything that will help her understand — and avoid — the noise.

“I don’t know what to do. Some days I want to put my stuff in storage, buy a van and travel,” she said. “I don’t want to do that. But there’s no good solution.”

 ?? MIKE BELLEME FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? A crypto mine in Murphy, N.C. Noise from computers and the fans needed to cool them has been a nuisance or worse for some neighbors.
MIKE BELLEME FOR THE WASHINGTON POST A crypto mine in Murphy, N.C. Noise from computers and the fans needed to cool them has been a nuisance or worse for some neighbors.
 ?? ?? TOP: Vicky and Larry Martin outside their home across from a large crypto mine in Marble, N.C. For many in the area, the noise doesn’t seem much different from what came from a now-defunct textile mill. Said Vicky Martin: “Outsiders stop by and ask me how it can’t bother me, but it doesn’t.” ABOVE: Gene Johnson served 40 years in the Navy and moved to Murphy to spend his retirement playing music with friends. The nearby crypto mine has upset those plans. “You try playing music with that noise. I keep time with the fans from the mine instead of the guys in my band,” he said.
TOP: Vicky and Larry Martin outside their home across from a large crypto mine in Marble, N.C. For many in the area, the noise doesn’t seem much different from what came from a now-defunct textile mill. Said Vicky Martin: “Outsiders stop by and ask me how it can’t bother me, but it doesn’t.” ABOVE: Gene Johnson served 40 years in the Navy and moved to Murphy to spend his retirement playing music with friends. The nearby crypto mine has upset those plans. “You try playing music with that noise. I keep time with the fans from the mine instead of the guys in my band,” he said.
 ?? PHOTOS BY MIKE BELLEME FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ??
PHOTOS BY MIKE BELLEME FOR THE WASHINGTON POST
 ?? ?? TOP: Downtown Murphy. Unlike places such as Asheville, N.C., and Johnson City, Tenn., which turned into minimetrop­olises during the pandemic, Murphy is still a place where people go to get away. ABOVE: One of those people was Patricia Callahan, who moved to rural Murphy three years ago from Philadelph­ia after a debilitati­ng traffic accident. Then the crypto mine opened. “It has ruined my life,” she said.
TOP: Downtown Murphy. Unlike places such as Asheville, N.C., and Johnson City, Tenn., which turned into minimetrop­olises during the pandemic, Murphy is still a place where people go to get away. ABOVE: One of those people was Patricia Callahan, who moved to rural Murphy three years ago from Philadelph­ia after a debilitati­ng traffic accident. Then the crypto mine opened. “It has ruined my life,” she said.
 ?? PHOTOS BY MIKE BELLEME FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ??
PHOTOS BY MIKE BELLEME FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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