These data processing centers are creating noise pollution in rural areas of the South.
This story was done in partnership with Enlace Latino NC. Léalo en español.
A few hundred yards from Belvoir Elementary School in Greenville, N.C., buds of cotton decay in a field where, in October, a sign alerted the community of plans to build a data processing center.
Molly Holdeman called the number of the “tiny sign” and said a county representative answered. He told her there would be a public comment session at the local fire department on Oct. 13.
Holdeman’s seven-year-old daughter attends the nearby elementary school; she wanted to know what company planned to move in next door. She and a group of mothers created flyers about the public session—in English and Spanish—and distributed them in the carpool line. They went to the meeting with about 40 people prepared to talk.
“When our group of parents and concerned citizens showed up at the fire department on Wednesday the 13th, we discovered it was not a public comment session, but an open house.”
Compute North is a Minnesota-based company serving clients in the cryptocurrency mining industry, according to vice president of marketing Kristyan Mjolsnes. Crypto mines, often referred to in the industry as data processing or data infrastructure centers, are essentially large warehouses filled with shelves stacked with servers that run the equations necessary for making cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin, the most popular. Cryptocurrency is a decentralized digital currency created to eliminate intermediaries, like banks, and exchanged on a public blockchain network.
“We had only a few short days to fight this thing,” said Lucy Fox, another mother of a Belvoir student. “Our biggest hurdle by far was that nobody knew what crypto mining was!”
Through rapidfire organizing, the community fought back—and won. Within a couple of weeks Compute North pulled their plans. But as the company looks for new sites to build in Pitt County and other parts of eastern N.C., neighbors are on alert.
Abundant land and cheap power
As cryptocurrency surges through the world virtually, rural America is beginning to experience physical manifestations of the process.
Crypto mining companies need abundant land and cheap power. The facilities often use a mix of renewable energy and the electrical grid, requiring a partnership with local power companies to operate. Most of the energy powers fans that run for at least 12 hours a day, often overnight, too cool off the machines. Jeff Jackson, VP of Compute North’s site development, told WCNT in October that the facility would have 89 modular data center containers, each needing 10 fans to keep cool.
According to Mjolsnes, Compute North currently operates three active facilities: one in Big Spring, Texas, one in Nebraska, and one in South Dakota. In 2018, Compute North built the Texas facility next to a power station. In a September Texas Monthly article, town officials said that “they can provide 25 megawatts of power here. That would be enough power to keep the lights on in somewhere between 4,500 and 10,000 Texas homes all year long.”
Mjolsnes told Southerly and Enlace Latino NC that the plan in Greenville was to use 150 megawatts.
When the Belvoir residents attended what they thought was a public session on the project, they felt blindsided by the display set out by Compute North. Holdeman said it included “posters all around showing pictures of gleaming, computer equipment and maps of the area.”
“They had beautiful hors d’oeuvres that nobody ate,” said Faye Bordeaux, a community activist who attended. “We weren’t there for that food.”
Mjolsnes said the facility would create 27 permanent jobs, as well as 300 construction jobs.
“We are investing a notable amount of money in these communities,” she said. “Not only an investment in our business and infrastructure, but it’s also an investment in that community.”
But Belvoir residents weren’t convinced it would be so beneficial.
“What became very clear to us is whether we were able to successfully answer and provide solutions to the questions and concerns raised, which we felt we were able to do,” Mjolsnes said. “There was a certain unwillingness or desire to listen and provide that common ground.”
Belvoir Elementary School, and the community surrounding it, is majority Hispanic. According to Pitt County public school data, 377 students are enrolled at Belvoir for the 2021-22 school year; 53.8% are Hispanic, 33.7% are Black, and 3% identify as multiracial. Only 9% of enrolled students are white. At least 48 Belvoir students learn the curriculum in both English and Spanish. The school receives Title 1 federal funding, which supports academic programs in schools where the poverty level is at least 75%.
“We were floored that we were able to do this,” said Bordeaux, who is a longtime social and environmental justice activist in Greenville’s Black community.
“They had this open house, right? How about they had no interpreter there,” she continued. “That’s what happens to marginalized communities. How narrow-minded and short-sighted is that?”
‘The number one impact is noise’
Noise is a major factor in communities’ resistance to crypto mining.
“It would disrupt the bucolic environment of rural North Carolina life,” said Alex Urban, policy director at AMEXCAN, a nonprofit working toward equity in Mexican-American and Latinx immigrant communities in eastern N.C. “The peace and quiet of the country would be replaced by the whir of machines.”
Beyond the discomfort and disturbance, crypto mining contributes to noise pollution, an invisible danger to human populations that can cause chronic illness and developmental issues. Research in Europe shows that environmental noise contributes to 48,000 new cases of ischaemic heart disease a year as well as 12,000 premature deaths. Noise pollution also affects children’s learning. One study found that “as a result of aircraft noise we estimate that 12,500 school children suffer reading impairment in school.”
Jackson from Compute North told WCNT that they “recognize that our number one impact is noise,” and that they have tried to mitigate it.
Other communities in the South have suffered from the effects of the noise. Red Dog Technologies opened a facility in In Washington County, Tenn. in May, about 2,500 feet away from Preston Holley’s house built on farmland that has been in his family for three generations.
Holley describes the noise like living next to an airport “where you’ve got the constant sound of jet engines that are… not necessarily the sound of a jet taking off, but of them sitting there on the tarmac waiting.”
By the time Holley and his neighbors learned of the crypto mine, they didn’t have time to present their public comment and concerns. A deal was inked with BrightRidge, the local power company. BrightRidge CEO Jim Dykes told WJHL News that cryptocurrency mining facilities seek out inexpensive power in rural communities. But he admitted he didn’t anticipate the noise impact. The servers run from 8 p.m to 2 p.m.
“It kicked on like clockwork all night long,” Holley said. “When it’s quiet and you’re laying down, you’ve got that noise in the background. It’s just not near as pleasant to be on our front porch or play in our front yard. And when you go over a hill and down into another valley, the community miles away can hear it.”
“Some representatives from our power company apologized to us,” Holley told Southerly and Enlace Latino NC. “They said, ‘look, this is not what we thought we were getting. We’re really sorry.’”
Officials in Pitt County, where Greenville is, say they’ve addressed the noise issue. “Pitt County probably has the most restrictive noise ordinance” in the state, said planning director James Rhodes. “We had to amend our regulations to include language about that particular land use,” he said about the Compute North proposal.
Underestimating the community
When Greenville residents first heard about the Compute North plans, their research led them to Holley and others affected by the Tennessee facility. The two communities remained in conversation about how to organize their voices into a cohesive platform.
“When I heard Preston Holley and his wife were watching our county commissioner’s meeting— he sent me a video during the meeting—it was so uplifting,” Holdeman said.
Mothers of Belvoir students led the organizing against the proposed facility, along with other women who are active in community issues. Maria Cortez attended the October meeting. Her youngest child is currently a student and her oldest daughter, who also attended Belvoir Elementary, now teaches there.
“We raised our entire family here,” Cortez said. For Latinos, she said, establishing roots in N.C. takes “big sacrifice.”
“A lot of people think [the Belvoir community] are transient,” said Holdeman. “But most of them own their land, their trailers. The ones who rent out there have been there for decades. This is a stable community and it’s a neighborhood.”
Cortez said her neighborhood “isn’t rich in money, but we are rich in community and peacefulness.”
She received a flyer in the mail in October about a tech company moving in, but it was in English; her preferred language is Spanish. Her main concern at the time was traffic. “School buses don’t go all the way into the neighborhood, so kids have to walk [home] from the stop,” she said. That worried us. With added traffic and parents working, if something happened to the kids, no one would know.”
At the open house, Lucy Fox said her husband, who is a Spanish professor, stepped in as interpreter.
Mjolsnes of Compute North confirmed there was no interpreter available. “To be quite candid, we were not made aware that it was a necessity or a requirement.” She said they sent out Spanish-language information and FAQs the “very next day. We took that to heart very quickly.”
She said engaging the community is “not a requirement.”
“We chose to pursue that option. Not every company would,” she added. “It shows our desire to uphold our core values.”
Greenville’s newspaper, Reflector, chronicled the community’s pushback, which included handing out fliers door-to-door and calling neighbors, as well as preparing and making comments at county commissioners meetings and holding a press conference that Holdeman said “felt like church.”
“I think they probably thought we were a bunch of yokels,” said Holdeman. “Saying that we misunderstand and that we don’t understand what crypto mining is. They are mistaken. We are intelligent, hardworking, and truthful people.”
Compute North decided to back out of the Belvoir location on Nov. 1. When asked if the community pushback was the reason, Mjolsnes said the company “wants to make sure that any project that we develop, any investment we’re making in a community is one that is welcomed and supported.”
She said they took the situation seriously, and they have “full intention to continue to vet alternative locations that were more aligned with the community’s feedback.”
The push for more mines
The cryptocurrency industry, despite its democratic origins, has become highly politicized.
Mjolsnes said that the industry’s rapid growth is exciting.
“The future is promising. Some might hear of the nefarious cases and that sets center stage in people’s minds,” she said. “It can cloud people’s ability to really look at the opportunity that it provides.”
She pointed to the adoption of cryptocurrency and mining in El Salvador. But it’s also been widely critiqued: Far-right president Nayib Bukele (who tauts himself as “CEO of El Salvador” and at one point used the term dictator), has faced major scrutiny for this decision and the way he’s implemented it.
Bitcoin mining is illegal in some countries, including Bolivia, Ecuador, Egypt, and Algeria. China cracked down on crypto mining in May after a power outage was attributed to a bitcoin mining operation. Throughout the year, Beijing enforced stricter regulations, strengthening the mining ban in November.
In the U.S., regulations vary by state. Texas has been wide open to the industry, for instance. According to the North Carolina Blockchain Initiative, founded by former Lt. Governor Dan Forest, a Republican, the state was among the first to adapt digital currency regulation with North Carolina Money Transmitters Act of 2016 (HB 289). The first N.C. crypto mine was built in Cherokee County in 2017, by Seattle-based Core Scientific, and residents there are still fighting noise issues.
Compute North is currently looking at other locations in Pitt County and other parts of eastern N.C., according to Mjolsnes, with plans to break ground in the first quarter of 2022.
Holdeman said her neighbors plan to learn more about that, too, as they educate themselves on crypto mining and what it means for a rural future.
“As a Title I school in a rural area, we never really had a PTA,” she added. “I am very excited not only for our victory in preventing this crypto mining company from coming in across the street from the school, but it really helped create community between parents and grandparents of the children. And I think in the long run, it’s going to strengthen the school because relationships were built, friendships were built and trust was created.”
Victoria Bouloubasis covers the intersection of environmental issues and economic mobility in Latinx, immigrant, and refugee communities in North Carolina for Southerly and Enlace Latino NC. She is a journalist and filmmaker based in Durham.
This story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.