By MARINA WATERS
It’s not every Saturday evening that Tennessee State Representative Rebecca Alexander spends her time at homes in the Bailey Bridge Road community listening for crickets and birds chirping.
But while she walked away that evening having heard none of the wildlife typically found in rural Washington County, she did leave with a strong desire to look for solutions for this community impacted by the sounds of a nearby bitcoin operation.
“People move to the county to hear the crickets at night,” Alexander told the Herald & Tribune, “and see the stars in the heavens that are not distorted by light, to be able to go out on their back porch and drink a glass of iced tea and listen to the birds chirp. These people around there, I don’t think are able to do that right now.”
Bitcoin is a global cryptocurrency. The business on Bailey Bridge Road, one of Red Dog Technologies’ bitcoin mining data centers, houses computers in metal buildings that process bitcoin exchanges happening throughout the world. Those computers require fans that help keep the servers cool, but also create noise throughout the area.
Alexander is not alone in her concerns.
Earlier this month, Red Dog Technologies Vice President Ed Medford told the Herald & Tribune, in addition to its site on Bailey Bridge Road, the company has a contingency agreement on another property in Washington County located on 81South.
But, on Monday, BrightRidge released a statement via email saying the local utility company is reconsidering the new location at this time.
“At this point, BrightRidge will not be considering an additional location until staff can evaluate the performance of the existing site after all mitigation measures have been put in place. Again, work to mitigate sound performance continues currently, and our understanding is that Red Dog Technologies is working to retain an acoustical engineer to examine additional measures to alleviate citizen concerns. Beyond that, questions of future locations, decision parameters or the like would be premature as a second site will not be considered until the first meets community expectations.”
The announcement, however, has not seemed to alleviate ongoing concerns.
On Monday, for example, community members took to the podium during the public comment portion of the Washington County Commission’s regularly scheduled meeting to voice their concerns and also ask commissioners to help the community find solutions moving forward.
“Our families are being impacted,” Craig Ponder, the pastor of New Salem Baptist Church near the bitcoin mining site, said to the commission. “Our community has been impacted. I don’t know the answer. But something needs to be done.”
Commissioner Kent Harris, who represents the Bailey Bridge Road area, also voiced his reservations. He asked at the end of the meeting that the commission include the issue on next month’s meeting agenda in addition to extending an invitation for BrightRidge and Red Dog Technologies representatives to also attend the meeting.
“I would like to hear from both of them,” Harris told the Herald & Tribune. “I think it was done the wrong way. I certainly hope it wasn’t done to pull the wool over our eyes, but it definitely makes me feel that way.”
Harris was referring to the vote, taken on Feb. 24, 2020, when the commission unanimously approved the rezoning request for the Bailey Bridge Road site, which is owned by BrightRidge, after the Washington County Regional Planning Commission approved the rezoning request. Harris said he greatly regrets his vote.
“I don’t think I’ve ever voted on something I have this much regret I voted on,” Harris said. “It makes me sick to think I voted for that. I just feel so bad about it. I feel like I should have done more on the front end. I didn’t have any idea this is what was coming down there. If I would have known, I never would have. I think the majority of the commission wouldn’t have either.”
Commissioner Danny Edens, who represents the 81 South area and used to represent the Bailey Bridge Area before the county’s redistricting in 2018, said in talking to community members, they all believed the site would be home to a solar farm.
“The sad thing about it is I asked why in the world they didn’t come (to petition the rezoning request), but every one of them told me they thought it was going to be a solar farm.”
A community member living in the 81 South area, Kathy Breen, mentioned her concern about the potential of a fire at any future bitcoin mining site. In November 2020, a bitcoin mining operation from the same parent company as the current site on Bailey Bridge Road caught fire in Maynardville, Tennessee.
“They are considering building this site in the Lamar area in a neighborhood with trees and woods in the backyard,” Breen said. ‘The (81 South property) would be horrendous if something happened like this fire in Maynardville.’
As for any potential site, community member David Stallsmith, who lives in the Dogwood community near 81 South, said he hopes commissioners consider their constituents and vote down any other similar rezoning requests in the future.
“We beg you,” Smith said. “We are pleading with you. Please take this under consideration … We are your constituents. We are your family. Not them. We need you to consider our welfare.”
Moving forward, Edens said he felt Washington County needs to put a halt on similar bitcoin operations in the countyw.
“I think we need to stop it here, with the commission,” Edens said. “I don’t know how anyone else feels, but from what I know about the one on Bailey Bridge Road, they don’t need to operate here. I don’t want to see anymore in Washington County, anywhere in the county.”
For Alexander, she’s hoping BrightRidge moves forward with community members in mind.
“I know BrightRidge has always been really customer oriented,” Alexander said. “They care about our community, They’re a great organization. I know they are going to do the right thing and take care of this issue.”
Alexander also said she hopes the county takes care of the issue here. Otherwise, it could go to the state level.
“I really expect our county, our mayor and our commissioners to make sure this doesn’t happen again. We have to have stronger regulations on what we put in when people live around those areas.
“I think our county can manage it,” Alexander said. “I feel confident that they can. But if it does not get done, we will try everything we can at the state level to protect our people.”