Artemis Power Tech’s facility sits among the Wolfe County woods, power lines connecting it to the nearby substation. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)
WOLFE COUNTY — She couldn’t see it through the trees on a recent late September morning, but she’s felt its presence for weeks on end.
Up the hill across from her home along the Wolfe-Lee county line, 76-year-old Brenda Campbell can hear through the leaves a constant, high-pitched whirring that rivals the cicada screeches in the Eastern Kentucky woods.
The noise, while not ear-piercingly loud at about 50 to 60 decibels, has been an aggravating, unabated problem for her and her neighbors who have generally enjoyed a quieter life in their rural community. Several of those neighbors are her family who have lived for generations in the area, less than a six mile drive from Natural Bridge State Resort Park.
“It’s all night long. It’s all day,” Campbell said, speaking with some of her family members and neighbors gathered on her driveway. “It has to be like brainwashing, you know, because it’s consistent. There’s no variation.”
In August, a Houston, Texas-based company Artemis Power Tech started operating a “data center” next to an electrical substation run by East Kentucky Power Cooperative, the utility serving Wolfe County and much of Eastern Kentucky.
In a shallow valley next to the substation, the data center looks like an active construction site with metal containers believed to be filled with high-powered computers — the whirring noise coming from fans working to keep the computers from overheating — sitting on a gravel bed.
While there’s uncertainty about what these computers are doing, Campbell and her family members suspect it’s a cryptocurrency mining operation, which typically uses immense amounts of electricity to run high-powered computers.
Computers involved with cryptocurrency mining solve complicated mathematical equations that help secure online transactions of the cryptocurrencies through a digital ledger called the “blockchain.” In the case of the popular cryptocurrency Bitcoin, mining companies are rewarded for solving the equations with Bitcoin itself; each Bitcoin is valued at more than $27,000 as of early October.
The money that’s made at the site has meant only metallic, unnatural noise in Campbell’s natural environment. The loud noise from a nearby ATV park is a headache for Campbell and her neighbors during the warmer months, but usually quiets down in the winter. Campbell worries the sound of this new operation will never pause, only worsening when the trees lose their leaves.
Her grandson, Corey Mattingly, who lives across the street from her, has had to turn on a fan at night because the sound penetrates the walls of his apartment. Her daughter, Shannon Foster, has had trouble finding local owls since the operation fired up, and Campbell worries how the bird population has been affected. Embedded “in your brain after a while” is how one of Campbell’s neighbors, Terry Booth, described the noise.
Campbell in recent weeks has lobbied her local county judge-executive and magistrates to pass a noise ordinance specifically geared toward addressing sound from cryptocurrency mining operations. Rural communities in other states have complained about noise from cryptocurrency mining operations, but it’s new in Wolfe County.
As more of these operations pop up across Kentucky, some think cryptocurrency mining will bring economic development to communities that need it. Campbell is doing what she can to try to bring some of the quiet back to her home.
“It’s like we’ve been taken advantage of,” Campbell said. “Nobody really cared what we thought. It didn’t matter that our property value might be lessened because of the noise. That was not important.”
How a Houston company’s data center arrived in Wolfe County
Not only are Brenda Campbell and her neighbors exasperated by the noise, they also feel blindsided by what little notice they received that the facility was coming into their community.
Wolfe County, like many rural counties in Kentucky, has no zoning laws to control where new businesses and industries may locate. It took only six months for the machines to come to her part of Wolfe County.
Hay Crypto Mining, a company out of Ashland, sold the land to Artemis Power Tech in February for $325,000, according to a deed from the Wolfe County clerk’s office. Campbell recalls electrical lines being installed at the site in March. A large truck brought in containers of computers in August, according to Campbell and her family, and a power surge rippled along their street when the operation first fired up later that month.
Artemis Power Tech doesn’t explicitly say what it’s using the Wolfe County data center for, though a recent job listing for the company does provide hints.
On an online forum post translated to English from Chinese through Google Translate, a job listing dated Sept. 19 describes Artemis Power Tech as “a leading blockchain technology company focusing on the mining farm construction industry” that’s seeking “mine operations engineers” for job sites in Oklahoma and Kentucky. On Artemis Power Tech’s website, the company showcases data centers in Oklahoma and the site in Wolfe County.
The job posting goes on to say specific job duties for the engineers include “maintaining and managing mining equipment” and “monitoring power supply and power consumption” at the sites.
The CEO and co-founder of Artemis Power Tech did not respond to requests for an interview about the noise complaints and why the company decided to set up an operation in Wolfe County.
The Wolfe County data center does use the enormous amounts of power typical of cryptocurrency mining operations. A power supply contract between East Kentucky Power Cooperative and Artemis Power Tech shows the utility supplying the data center with 10 megawatts of power. The company has the ability to increase that amount to 13 megawatts of power, equivalent to powering more than 5,000 homes over the course of a year.
John May is the manager of administrative services for the region’s electric distribution cooperative, Licking Valley RECC, which gets its power from East Kentucky Power Cooperative. May said the power demand of the new facility is unprecedented for the area; it uses vastly more electricity than its next largest consumer: a prison. May said Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex in Morgan County only uses about one megawatt of electricity.
“We’re a very small rural co-op. We don’t really have any large industry,” May said. “I don’t know the specifics about what they’re mining. I just know it’s a mining facility. I don’t see what their servers are doing.”
May said he does empathize with Campbell and her family about the noise, but that Licking Valley RECC is required by Kentucky law to provide electricity to businesses on demand. He said the cooperative tried to work with Artemis Power Tech to limit the trees cut down at the site to buffer the noise.
He said while such cryptocurrency mining facilities don’t provide much in the way of jobs, the revenue from the operation could delay future rate increases by utility East Kentucky Power Cooperative.
“There’s plenty of businesses out there that make noise as well. So, it’s unfortunate, you know, for the people that live next to it, whatever it may be,” May said.
May’s argument about cryptocurrency mining’s impact on utility rates echoes other arguments made by cryptocurrency advocates who see the industry as an economic development boost, an industry that Kentucky lawmakers have also tried to embrace.
Economic development, but at what cost?
A number of cryptocurrency mining facilities have flocked to Kentucky in recent years driven by the need for available power — and importantly cheap power — to fuel their computers. Besides the cost of machines, the cost of electricity is generally the biggest expense for such companies.
The GOP-controlled Kentucky legislature and Kentucky’s Democratic governor have also sweetened the incentives for such companies to come to the state in the form of tax breaks. Some cryptocurrency mining companies have also received discounts on electricity costs from utilities including East Kentucky Power Cooperative in return for the perceived investment brought into communities.
Yet environmental conservation and renewable energy advocacy groups have raised concerns about the use of these electricity discounts and whether they should be saved for businesses that create more jobs; cryptocurrency mining facilities often create only a few. Some of these electricity discounts have come under scrutiny by Kentucky’s utility regulator.
Groups in Kentucky, such as the Kentucky Resources Council and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, also have concerns about the growing and significant greenhouse gas emissions associated with the cryptocurrency mining industry, particularly in Kentucky where the electricity grid still heavily relies on coal-fired power.
Monica Sturgill, a manager with the Ashland company Hay Crypto Mining that sold the Wolfe County land to Artemis Power Tech, recognizes that cryptocurrency mining operations don’t bring on a lot of new employees to a region.
She said the land sale was part of her company’s strategy to site cryptocurrency mining facilities next to substations in Eastern Kentucky that could handle the power load. Working as a consultant to locate crypto mining companies in the region, first off, would make money for her own company but also help East Kentucky Power Coopeartive’s ratepayers, reiterating May’s arguments about the facility’s benefits.
Environmental advocacy groups have argued cryptocurrency miners can instead harm utility consumers by pushing up rates. Researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkley found that large power demands by cryptocurrency miners increased the cost of electricity for some communities in New York.
Sturgill said she was “shocked” to hear about the noise complaints in Wolfe County and that she had also dealt with noise complaints with another cryptocurrency mining operation she worked to locate in Elliott County.
“I wouldn’t say it’s quiet. It’s not quiet. You’re not going to not hear anything, right? But it is a different sound than what you’re used to,” Sturgill said, mentioning she would probably be annoyed by the sound if she was in the situation of nearby neighbors. “It would be different and it would be probably frustrating, but I wouldn’t say it’s like a nuisance.”
As for the possibility of a noise ordinance by the county government, she suggested such a move could make a cryptocurrency mining operation leave a community altogether if it’s not able to operate in the way it prefers.
“Everybody screams they want economic development, right? Everybody screams, ‘Our county has nothing, and we need something,’” Sturgill said. “When something is done properly and done correctly and done well, no matter what, there’s always somebody that’s upset with you.”
A push to curb the noise
Back in Wolfe County, Campbell has heard the arguments about economic development in favor of the facility, including from a member of the Licking Valley RECC board whom she knows.
Speaking about the state laws that have benefited cryptocurrency mining in recent years, she understands that the intent of such laws was to spur economic growth.
“But I don’t think that they took into consideration the impact that one of those facilities would have on the community,” Campbell said.
Campbell and her neighbors see few people working at the Artemis Power Tech site, primarily a security guard who watches the facility. In late September, a Ford sedan was parked at the entrance of the operation where metal parts, wooden pallets and other construction equipment lay strewn on the ground. A lone man walked amongst the containers in the valley below
Campbell said she’s also angry at her utility for its role in bringing the facility to Wolfe County, particularly with how Artemis Power Tech is paying East Kentucky Power Cooperative $235,000 to upgrade the substation to meet the operation’s power demands.
May, the Licking Valley RECC manager, said Artemis Power Tech’s payment is solely going toward upgrading the substation. A spokesperson for East Kentucky Power Cooperative in a statement said the utility generally creates a “special contract” with cryptocurrency mining operations because of their large power usage to make sure costs from the facility aren’t borne by other ratepayers.
Regardless of any perceived economic benefit, Campbell is continuing to push her county judge-executive and county magistrates to pass a noise ordinance that would keep the sound levels created by the Artemis Power Tech facility under a certain limit.
Billy Banks, the Wolfe County magistrate who represents Campbell’s part of the county, told the Lantern the county probably needs to pass a noise ordinance “sometime down the road.” He mentioned that Wolfe County Judge-Executive Raymond Banks, who Campbell has spoken with, had been at the site a few times and “didn’t see no problem with it.”
“I know Brenda personally. They’re good people, and I don’t want them to go through that,” magistrate Billy Banks said.
Raymond Banks, the judge-executive, has not responded to several calls and emails requesting an interview about the possibility of a noise ordinance.
Mandy DeRoche, a deputy managing attorney at the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, has followed similar noise complaints about other cryptocurrency mining operations in rural communities. The effort to get a noise ordinance in Wolfe County, she said, is no different.
“Noise is a hyper-locally regulated thing, right? That’s why a lot of places, especially in rural communities, don’t have zoning. They’re usually quiet,” DeRoche said. “A lot of our partners around the country have had to fight for protection to minimize the nuisance or eliminate the nuisance to the extent that they can.”
DeRoche said in states such as Arkansas and Montana, state legislatures have passed laws limiting local governments’ ability to pass noise ordinances directed by cryptocurrency mining facilities.
“It takes the right away from local communities to protect themselves from that noise,” DeRoche said.
Campbell has also reached out for help to state Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, who represents Wolfe County and is a strong advocate for cryptocurrency mining, but hasn’t heard back from him. A spokesperson for Smith said the senator, who’s the CEO and President of a Letcher County-based Bitcoin mining company, wasn’t immediately available for an interview and that the senator wanted to learn more about the situation in Wolfe County.
For her part, Campbell plans to continue to advocate for a noise ordinance not only for herself but for her extended family: her daughter and grandson who live across the street, the cousins who live down the road, the family that will inherit the home she lives in now.
“I’m 76. I’m not going to be around forever. So, a child that might inherit it, they’re going to have to, you know — they may want or not want to live here, so that’s something they would have to contend with,” she said.
“They’re not going to run me off,” she said.
SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.