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Residents of two Arkansas towns fight against crypto mines

The Crypto Mine in Dewitt in January. The barriers around the mine sustained mild storm damage.
Josie Lenora
/
Little Rock Public Radio
A crypto mine in DeWitt in January. The barriers around the mine sustained mild storm damage.

In DeWitt last year, a series of computers lined up in a space just smaller than a football field cropped up on an open plain on the edge of the town.

Crypto mines are large groups of computers designed to generate cryptocurrency. They are made up of rows of humming metal boxes.

The mines are controversial. The New York Times has reported crypto mines aren't great for the environment, all the mines in America could together power 1.5 million homes. Reports have linked some crypto mines to China and the Chinese government, making some residents squeamish. Sometimes animals run when they are turned on.

But for many people, the issue is just the noise.

Little Rock Public Radio recorded the hum from the DeWitt crypto mine on a cold day in January. The soft hum from the fans cooling the computers are always spinning, sort of like a big white noise machine. This mine is a little quieter than audio recorded by Little Rock Public Radio from other crypto mines in Arkansas.

A mine in Greenbrier is far louder than the one in DeWitt. The noise rings constantly, all day, fluctuating between the volume of a hair dryer or the noise level of this broadcast. The ringing rarely ever turns off.

Residents who live next to crypto mines say even several blocks away they can still hear the noise, and it’s making them miserable. Having a conversation on their porch, hosting a barbeque or milking their cows has become difficult with the constant loud wailing audible in the distance.

The people of DeWitt are trying to avoid the situation in Greenbrier. A group of community members have banded together to get rid of the mine altogether.

“They’re taking the Delta, which is obviously an economically depressed area, and turning it into their garbage dump,” resident Karen Rowe said.

DeWitt coffee shop owner Tami Hornbeck said the mines don't “give back to our community at all. It does not employ anyone from our community.”

Meanwhile, resident Jerry Bogard says the mines use too much water “and we are in a critical groundwater use designated area.”

This has sparked a tale of two legal battles. In Greenbrier, the town is suing the mine asking for a jury trial and damages. They say the mine breaks public nuisance laws by being so loud. In DeWitt, a lawsuit has ended but residents who have spoken out against the mine have been hit with a slew of subpoenas from the same law firm.

Wright Lindsey Jennings is representing the two crypto mine companies in both legal battles; Jones Digital in DeWitt and Newrays One in Greenbrier.

Wright Lindsey Jennings wants access to emails from many of the DeWitt mine’s opposers. They also requested any records of the regular meetings the detractors have been holding to discuss opposition to the crypto mine. Hornbeck, was at a recent meeting where they discussed the feelings they had from being subpoenaed.

“I mean there’s fear of what this means for our community,” she said. “When they start coming after citizens who are just standing up to protect our community.”

She said her resolve to fight against the mines is stronger than ever.

The mines already won the legal battle in DeWitt. An ordinance capping noise at 45 decibels would have effectively shut down the mine, but was overturned after the county was sued in federal court. Jimmy Chen, who is building the mine, said stopping it from going forward would cause him to lose business.

This is why Hornbeck thinks it's strange that she is being asked to hand over the group's correspondences. For now, the mine doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

A lawyer for Wright Lindsey Jennings said in a statement that the mines “generate far less noise than other ongoing commercial operations in the county.” The attorney says the nearby highway is just as loud as the mine.

And for right now this is true. The cars streaming by on Highway 165 make louder sounds than the mine in DeWitt. Little Rock Public Radio recorded the cars at 70 to 80 decibels versus the mine which is around 40 to 50 from the same location.

Meanwhile, a resident in Greenbrier said after they filed a lawsuit against the mine there, the noises got softer, like someone had turned them down. This may just be because the lawsuit was filed in winter, when overheating is less of a concern.

Unlike in DeWitt, Greenbrier residents won their first legal battle. Wright Lindsey Jennings tried to throw out their noise complaint lawsuit claiming the suit was too unprecedented. They were unsuccessful.

Neither of the companies building the mines originate in Arkansas. Chen, the CEO of Jones Digital, for example, is based in New York City.

Currently, crypto mines are under investigation by Attorney General Tim Griffin.

“The laws currently do not give my office the reach that I wish we had,” he said, speaking with journalist Roby Brock. “There is a lot of discussion about Chinese involvement in these, and let's just say I am investigating all of that.”

That was in October. So far, there hasn’t been any updates on the investigation.

Crypto mining companies are coming to Arkansas, in part, because of recent legislation that set minimum regulations on the practice.

Now, legislators are wondering if that law was a mistake.

At a recent community meeting, Rep. Jeremiah Moore, R-Clarendon, who represents parts of DeWitt, said he is going to put forward a law banning crypto mines in the next legislative session. He says he’s conscious that a crypto mine company could sue Arkansas, but he believes banning the mines is the right thing to do.

“I am going to do everything I can to get it passed,” he said. “I cant promise that. I am just one man.”

He alleges cryptocurrency is being used to fund terrorism, along with drug and human trafficking. The Wall Street Journal has reported the terrorist group Hamas has used cryptocurrency to raise money for their operations. Other reporting from Reuters shows the currencies linked to human trafficking.

“Arkansas doesn't need to even tacitly aid and abet those terrorist organizations and those drug cartels,” he said.

Moore joins other colleagues in the legislature like Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, who wants a law banning the mines.

Owners of the mines in DeWitt are promising to be “responsible neighbors” and “timely taxpayers.” They say they “look forward to working with the Arkansas County community and putting this chapter behind them.”

The mines in both places keep humming while the legal process rolls forward. Detractors say they disrupt their peace of mind and quality of life; supporters of the mines say everything is fine.

Wright Lindsey Jennings is among Little Rock Public Radio’s financial supporters.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.