Anxiety, Mood Swings and Sleepless Nights: Life Near a Bitcoin Mine

On a sweltering July evening, the din from thousands of computers mining for Bitcoins pierced the night. Nearby, Matt Brown, a member of the Arkansas legislature, monitored the noise alongside a local magistrate.

As the two men investigated complaints about the operation, Mr. Brown said, a security guard for the mine loaded rounds into an AR-15-style assault rifle that had been stored in a car.

“He wanted to make sure that we knew he had his gun — that we knew it was loaded,” Mr. Brown, a Republican, said in an interview.

The Bitcoin outfit here, 45 minutes north of Little Rock, is one of three sites in Arkansas owned by a network of companies embroiled in tense disputes with residents, who say the noise generated by computers performing trillions of calculations per second ruins lives, lowers property values and drives away wildlife.

Scores of the operations have popped up in recent years across the United States. When a mining computer lands on numbers that Bitcoin’s algorithm accepts, the payout is currently worth about a quarter-million dollars. The more computers an operation has, the better chance of earning the payout.

The industry is often criticized for its vast energy use — often a boon for the fossil-fuel industry — and noise is a common complaint. Though some elected officials like Mr. Brown and other Bitcoin operators in Arkansas have voiced support for the beleaguered residents, a new state law has given the companies a significant leg up.

The Arkansas Data Centers Act, popularly called the Right to Mine law, offers Bitcoin miners legal protections from communities that may not want them operating nearby. Passed just eight days after it was introduced, the law was written in part by the Satoshi Action Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Mississippi whose co-founder worked in the Trump administration rolling back Obama-era climate policies.

“The state of Arkansas has pulled off a surprise victory and become the first in the nation to pass the ‘Right to Mine’ #Bitcoin bill in both the House and Senate,” Dennis Porter, the fund’s chief executive, posted on social media when the law passed last April.

A similar bill passed in Montana last May, and the group has said it hopes to enact its successful formula in at more than a dozen other states. Bills written in collaboration with the group were introduced last month in several states including Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska and Virginia.

Founded five years ago as the Energy 45 Fund, the group sought to tout Mr. Trump’s energy and environmental agenda and “defend the greatest president in modern history.” Its founder, Mandy Gunasekara, had spent the previous two years at the Environmental Protection Agency, where she played a key role in the decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord and helped repeal the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce emissions from coal-burning power plants.

The group is widely lionized by the Bitcoin community, both for its legislative work and for its combative stance toward critics of the industry. But the fund’s aggressive approach has riled others in the Bitcoin community who say they prefer to build consensus around cryptocurrency operations.

Arry Yu, executive director of the U.S. Blockchain Coalition, an industry group, said Arkansas residents were “taken advantage” of.

“We need to take a humble approach, work with the communities, don’t hijack their journeys and their lives,” Ms. Yu said. “And if they move slowly, too slow for you, too bad.”

The strife in Arkansas reflects disagreements across the United States as Bitcoin mining has grown by leaps and bounds. Environmental activists, troubled by the industry’s electricity consumption and resulting pollution, have called for federal regulation, while backers of the operations say the mines often help stabilize vulnerable electrical grids and provide jobs in rural areas.

Concerns about the Arkansas mines have expanded beyond the initial noise complaints to include their connections to Chinese nationals. The operations are connected to a larger influx of Chinese ownership across the United States, The New York Times reported in October, some of which has drawn national security scrutiny.

A web of shell companies connects the Arkansas operators to a multibillion-dollar business partially owned by the Chinese government, according to public records obtained by residents opposed to the operations. In November, the Arkansas attorney general’s office opened an investigation into them for potentially violating a state law barring businesses controlled by Chinese nationals from owning land.

A lawyer representing the operations said an independent security contractor was responsible for the incident near Greenbrier and the company never authorized any guard to “brandish a firearm.” They also said that the attorney general’s investigation was based on a “misunderstanding” and that they are legally allowed to conduct business.

Despite efforts to build bipartisan support, the Satoshi fund has succeeded predominantly in red states. But in Arkansas, where the state legislature is dominated by Republicans, it is conservatives who have led calls to repeal the law, including Senator Bryan King, a poultry farmer whose district includes a property purchased by one of the companies tied to the Chinese government. He said it was not fair that the Bitcoin operators received special protections under the law, which shields them from “discriminatory industry specific regulations and taxes,” including noise ordinances and zoning restrictions.

“They’re in a protected class more than any other business out there,” Mr. King said.

As restrictions introduced in Congress have failed to gain traction, states and cities have stepped in to fill the void. But as Arkansas has demonstrated, unsatisfying results can leave residents feeling betrayed.

“Hell” is how Gladys Anderson describes life since the Bitcoin operation near Greenbrier opened last May less than 100 yards from her home.

Computers have been running mostly around the clock, she said, creating so much noise — they require constant cooling by loud fans — that her son no longer goes outside. “The reason we moved out here was to get away from people, get away from noise,” she said.

Her son, who requires full-time care for autism, has also grown more agitated and aggressive, she said. “It’s exhausting mentally, emotionally, physically,” Ms. Anderson said.

In July, she and nearly two dozen neighbors filed a lawsuit against the owners, NewRays One, blaming the operation for various health problems, including increased blood pressure, anxiety, difficulty sleeping and mood swings.

The lawsuit also suggests the mine has depressed property values.

“Who would want to purchase property near the noisy site?” one of the residents, Rebecca Edwards, wrote in an affidavit. “Short answer: No one.”

Lawyers representing NewRays are seeking to have the case thrown out, citing the Right to Mine law, among other arguments. Recently, the same judge overseeing the lawsuit ruled in a separate case that a local ordinance restricting noise at a related operation was likely to be discriminatory, violating the state law.

A lawyer for NewRays disputed the allegations made by Ms. Anderson and the other residents, telling The Times that the company looked forward to defending itself in court. As for the lawsuit at the related operation, in which NewRays is a partner, the lawyer said the mine would be a “responsible neighbor” and hoped to find additional ways “to give back to the community.”

After the law was signed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in April, 49 of the state’s 76 counties enacted ordinances limiting noise levels at data centers, including cryptocurrency mining operations, before it took effect in August, according to the Association of Arkansas Counties. The legality of…

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