By MARINA WATERS
The rural countryside of Washington County is usually known for its quiet atmosphere. But for some community members on and around Bailey Bridge Road in Limestone, the sound of their environment has changed in the past year.
Members of the community, such as Preston Holley, are unhappy with the sound coming from a bitcoin mining center located on Bailey Bridge Road. And as another site within Washington County is currently being considered by the company, more bitcoin operations could be on their way.
“We built our home in that spot specifically because of how nice it is out there,” Holley said. “The noise is constant. Inside, outside, you don’t get a break from it.”
The business, one of Red Dog Technologies’ bitcoin mining data centers, houses computers in small metal buildings that process bitcoin exchanges happening throughout the world. Those computers require cooling fans that help keep the servers at an appropriate temperature — which, in turn, create a buzzing, hum-like sound throughout the surrounding area.
“You have a hum that is happening all the time,” Red Dog Technologies Vice President Ed Medford said. “I think what people are experiencing, although the noise doesn’t exceed any of the limits, it’s going on all the time, around the clock. I think that’s been the biggest issue in talking to people. In the valleys and hills of East Tennessee, the noise echoes and ricochets.”
Medford said the company must keep the sound between 60-70 decibels in the community. He also said keeping the sound to a certain level was part of the company plan when BrightRidge, that owns the Bailey Bridge Road property, presented the rezoning request to the Washington County Regional Planning Commission in February of 2020.
“We went through the planning commission because the site had to be rezoned from agriculture to what is appropriate for what we’re doing,” Medford said. “The planning commission asked about the noise. We told them there would be noise and it would be running around the clock, but it would be in the 60-70 decibel range. We have been within those ranges.”
But for community members, the sound created by the site has changed the atmosphere of the community on Bailey Bridge Road.
“When we’re in bed, it’s constant,” Holley said. “Sitting on our front porch on a pretty afternoon, used to be, if you heard a dog bark, that was the only thing you heard. Now it’s that. It even affects having conversation with the person next to you on the front porch.
“It has just completely changed the atmosphere of the ambiance of being outside at our house.”
Others, like Tim Hylton, whose property is adjacent to the Bailey Bridge Road property, said the noise is constant, but seems to be heightened later in the evening.
“I have an outside wood boiler which heats our house. I go out there when the boiler is running at like 10 o’clock at night to be sure I’ve got the fire stoked up,” Hylton said. “It is incredibly loud then. There is no other noise in the world at that time. I’ve been walking out there for 15 years to stoke that fire, and there is zero sound besides a car going down the road a quarter of a mile away. Now, it’s just a big hum.”
Medford said the company increases its data processing activities at times when power is not used as heavily.
“To the extent that we can use that power, that means that Tennessee Valley Authority can make money off of what they are generating and what (otherwise) wouldn’t be used,” Medford said. “Everybody benefits from something like that strictly from a revenue perspective.
“The reason we get recruited to these communities is, they say, ‘Yes, come use this power that no one is using.’ It makes sense for a community to say, ‘Come use this power at those down times.’”
Craig Ponder, the pastor at nearby New Salem Baptist Church, said as church members filter through the doors on Sunday mornings, the sound is ongoing. His fear is that nothing will be done.
“At first they think it’s a combine tractor running. One family told me it’s hard for them to even sleep at night. It’s just very invasive.
“I just fear that we’re kind of here in this small community in rural America. Would our voice be loud enough to be heard by corporate America? Would they come back in after the fact and retrofit some sort of sound suppression system?”
The company is currently working on a 9-foot tall sound wall that will include insulation to cool the units housing the computers while also buffering some of the sound coming from the site.
“It’s not going to take it down to zero,” Medford said. “There will always be some noise in there, but it should decrease it quite a bit we think.”
So why would a company processing world-wide, online currency come to Washington County?
Medford said the business took interest in Washington County for a number of reasons: the top being low energy costs, which is an aspect bitcoin mining operations search for. Near the top of that list are the areas in the TVA system, he said.
“Some of the rates in the valley are some of the lowest in the country,” Medford said.
Bitcoin mining operations also look for areas that are close to generated power, such as that found at substations, which are spaces usually built by utility companies to generate power in an area.
Medford said Washington County was also on the company’s radar after local power company, BrightRidge, responded to Red Dog Technologies’ request for proposal, suggesting the company consider the property on Bailey Bridge Road next to BrightRidge’s substation.
Red Dog Technologies now has a five-year “rolling” lease on the property, which means it can be renewed every five years, but can’t be terminated, Medford said.
BrightRidge Public Relations and Government Relations Director Tim Whaley said in an email that the company uses “surplus electric generation” at times when the demand for energy is lessened.
“This facility helps all BrightRidge customers over the long term because this project uses surplus electric generation at off-peak hours … Red Dog Technologies’ usage during off-peak hours makes the entire system more efficient, which in turn helps minimize rate pressure for all BrightRidge customers.”
The company doesn’t just set out to “use up a bunch of power” in rural areas, Medford said. He said Red Dog Technologies strives to be a good neighbor, which includes community involvement such as summer work programs for high school students and seeing what can be done to address community concerns.
“We want to be a good neighbor,” Medford said. “As (concerns) come to our attention, we are going to try to address them as much as we can. We want to be a good steward, we want to be a good citizen, we want to be a good neighbor. We want to do all those things.”
Community members near Bailey Bridge Road are also unhappy with the lack of information they said they had about the company before the noise began on the site.
“There wasn’t a way to really prepare for it,” Holley said. “It would have been nice to have at least known. There was just talk around the community that BrightRidge had bought it and they were going to put a solar farm there. That’s what everybody said.”
Tennessee Code Annotated 13-7-105 (b)(1) requires that the governing body announce the date, time and location of public hearings regarding a property undergoing the rezoning process. The county must also run a notice in the newspaper for at least 15 days.
Washington County Planning Director Angie Charles told the Herald & Tribune the county sends out letters to property owners within 300 feet of the property looking to be rezoned. The county also places a rezoning sign at the property making the community aware of the potential rezoning.
“We like to give as much public notification as we can,” Charles said. “The legislation does not require us to post that sign on the property. We’re also not required to mail out the notices, but we want to make every effort to disclose what’s being requested so anybody in the county, you could live on the other side of the county, and if you drive by that sign, you can call our office and we’ll discuss that zoning request with you.
Documents from the Feb. 4, 2020, planning commission meeting show that the proposed use for the Bailey Bridge Road site was a “block chain data center and solar farm.” BrightRidge and Red Dog Technologies told the Herald & Tribune there are no plans for solar panels on the site, but there is no requirement to stick to the plan for a solar panel farm for an agriculture business zone, Charles said.
“If they choose to do the solar portion of the project, they can because the zoning district allows for that,” Charles said. “But they don’t have to if they decide that’s something they don’t want to do with the property. They’re not bound to construct that.”
Hylton said he would have talked with the county and the company before the rezoning went through if he had known about what specifically was coming to the site.
“I don’t know if we can do anything about it now,” Hylton said. “Whenever they had the sign up about the rezoning, I reached out to the people who used to own it and heard it was going to be some type of communication station or a solar farm. That was what they had been told.
“If we had known exactly what it was we would have tried to put up a fight. I don’t know that there is any way we could have stopped it.”
There is another potential site Red Dog Technologies is considering in Washington County.
Medford said there is a contingency agreement that has not been finalized for a site located on 81 South in Washington County that Red Dog Technologies is considering. That site is near BrightRidge’s Walter’s Primary substation at 2608 Highway 81 S.
“BrightRidge has proposed another site up there,” Medford said. “So we are certainly looking at it, but we haven’t made any final decisions on any plans. (The agreement is) contingent on us agreeing with the utility, there has to be some rezoning done, in some cases there is some grading that has to be done.”
Community members near the 81 South location, like Kathy Breen and her husband, Robert Drake, whose property is adjacent to the substation, said they are looking to keep the operation away from their home.
“We just want to keep the countryside beautiful,” Breen said. “We want to enhance and keep it lovely. We want to keep it better than we found it. We feel an obligation to do that. This is part of that quest for us.
“We can’t be silent about it. We can’t be fearful. When we do, we’re not doing our jobs as citizens and people who care about the land.”
Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy said there are no current county meetings slated to address noise complaints or the potential new site. Charles said there is no current rezoning application submitted for the 81 S property as of Tuesday, May 11.
For Medford and Red Dog Technologies, the bitcoin mining operation is not about creating conflict within the communities they are in. He said he hopes the community sees that the company is aiming to add to the community.
“We did not create the company to be a nuisance to anybody or have these type of issues out there,” Medford said. “We are still a fairly new, young company. So we continue to grow and discover; it’s like anybody doing anything for the first time with a new company. There are some things, as you move forward, that you can do better as you make improvements out there.”