ICYMI: North Tonawanda Residents Harmed By Constant Noise Pollution

NORTH TONAWANDA, NY (06/17/2024) (readMedia)-- Over the weekend, the Buffalo News published a story about the major noise pollution caused by Digihost, the cryptomining operation in the Fortistar North Tonawanda gas plant. According to the story,

"The noise keeps people up at night. It forces them to close their windows on hot days, causes some to abandon their backyards in favor of the slightly quieter indoors and even changes their dogs' behaviors.

It's inconsistent, often gets louder at night, leaves neighbors on edge and, according to experts, is likely detrimental to their health and well-being."

Read the full story here or below.

About the Digihost/Fortistar North Tonawanda Cryptomining Plant

Digihost/Fortistar North Tonawanda was previously a peaker plant that occasionally provided energy to the grid, about 3-5 weeks a year. But, with their change in operations to mine cryptocurrency behind-the-meter (in other words, not from the grid) in early 2023, the gas plant is steadily increasing their emissions by combusting fracked gas 24/7/365 to mine Bitcoin. In just the first few months of 2024, the Facility emitted nearly the same amount of emissions as it did in all of 2022 and 2023 combined! This drastic increase in operations is making the facility a major source of local air pollution and climate change-accelerating greenhouse gas emissions - while the rest of the state focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to meet the mandates of NYS's climate law. When it is operating, the facility is also a constant source of health-harming noise pollution for the people who live near the plant, as well as thermal water discharges into an aging wastewater system.

Digihost/Fortistar North Tonawanda applied for a renewal of its air permit three years ago. Advocates are demanding the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation follow the precedent it set by denying crypto-miner Greenidge Generation's air permit two years ago in June 2022, which has been upheld twice, in 2023 and 2024.

About Cryptomining Across the Country

In a report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that Earth is likely to cross a critical and dire threshold for global warming within the next decade if we don't quickly and drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But after China banned proof-of-work crypto-mining (the process Bitcoin uses), citing, among other things, the environmental threats that mining poses to meeting emissions reduction goals, the U.S. is now hosting many energy-intensive proof-of-work crypto-mining operations. While these facilities of automated machines create few new jobs, they threaten the climate, in addition to small businesses, local economies, and natural resources.

Proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining is an energy-intensive process that requires thousands of machines whirring 24/7 to solve complex equations. The more machines that are running, the faster a coin is mined. Each one of these machines requires energy to run, plus more energy for cooling. Globally, Bitcoin mining consumes more energy each year than entire countries. Fossil-fueled mining facilities can also be major emitters of local air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution and electronic waste, among other externalities on impacted host communities.

Last year, the New York Times published an in-depth expose about the negative impacts of proof-of-work Bitcoin mining. In September 2022, the White House sounded the alarm about cryptocurrency mining - the Office of Science and Technology Policy released a report about the industry's climate threats and the need for regulation. Earthjustice and the Sierra Club released a Guidebook as well, with state-specific follow-ups to cryptomining in Pennsylvania, Texas, Kentucky, and Indiana, as well as on related topics including right to mine legislation and the lack of energy use reporting requirements for cryptominers.

Earthjustice represents several clients with respect to the plant's operations, including the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York and the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter. Earthjustice also partners with local advocates and residents. Earthjustice staff are available for interviews.

Buffalo News Story
The din of crypto mining: North Tonawanda says it can't enforce noise law to protect residents

The noise keeps people up at night. It forces them to close their windows on hot days, causes some to abandon their backyards in favor of the slightly quieter indoors and even changes their dog's behaviors.

It's inconsistent, often gets louder at night, leaves neighbors on edge and, according to experts, is likely detrimental to their health and well-being.

The noise reverberating around neighborhoods of North Tonawanda comes from Digihost, a blockchain technology company that mines cryptocurrency. It's likely the noise comes from large fans running to cool down bitcoin-mining computers in the company's buildings on the Erie Avenue property.

"It grates on you," said Fairmont Avenue resident Mark Polito. "It's like fingernails on a chalkboard ... everyone's got lawnmowers, eventually they shut off. This is constant; it's 24/7, it does not turn off."

North Tonawanda residents living around the Digihost facility said they can hear a humming noise coming from the property at nearly every hour of the day. At times, the noise seems to get louder, rising to levels akin to a jet plane running its engines right outside their front doors, community members told The Buffalo News.

"I hear it during the day before I go to work and then when I come home from work," said Sherwood Avenue resident Karen Hance. "I hear it when I'm trying to go to sleep. I lay there and I can't sleep because of the sound."

On the afternoon of June 7, the facility's humming could be heard above the patter of light rain on Polito's back porch about a half-mile away from the Digihost property. Sitting in Kevin O'Connor's open garage on Remington Drive less than 2,000 feet from Digihost, any lull in conversation gave reminder of the facility's presence with the dull thrum audible over the Friday afternoon rainfall. Late Tuesday evening, the noise was much more pronounced ? an obvious din that seemed to bounce off homes on Remington Drive and reverberate along Sherwood Avenue.

The noise from the Digihost facility has been polluting the North Tonawanda community for more than two years ? the plant is estimated to have begun operations in February 2022.

Since then, residents said the city has done little, despite countless complaints, to enforce its noise ordinance against Digihost and give relief to those living around the facility.

The noise ordinance is supposed to protect residents and promote the "public health, comfort, convenience, safety, welfare and prosperity and the peace and quiet" of North Tonawanda.

City officials said they don't have the equipment to enforce the noise ordinance, which Digihost may have violated, according to decibel level readings taken by the police department in May.

"The equipment that would be admissible in court is expensive and does require training," said North Tonawanda city attorney Edward Zebulske.

The lack of any effective action to dampen or quiet the noise coming from the Digihost facility means nearby North Tonawanda residents are likely being subjected to noise pollution that could be harming their health.

"There are well-documented health impacts of noise pollution," said Les Blomberg, director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about noise pollution. "There are cardiovascular effects to noise pollution; it triggers our fight or flight response, elevates our stress levels and causes sleep interference."

"This company is making money," Blomberg continued, "and they're making money by disturbing the health and well-being of their neighbors."

Digihost did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Buffalo News.

City officials frustrated

The city's inaction seems to frustrate even North Tonawanda Common Council members, many of whom weren't on the council when the city approved the project in 2021.

"I live almost two miles away and it sounds like it's in my backyard," said Alderman at Large Joseph Lavey Jr. during a May 14 meeting. "When I go outside to get a cup of coffee to get some peace and quiet ? you don't get that anymore."

Digihost's noise could be considered surprising: In an August 2021 Common Council meeting, the company's CEO, Michel Amar, gave a presentation outlining its objectives and priorities around being a friendly operation in North Tonawanda.

"We have servers, they are isolated in a brand new beautiful container and soundproof ? you won't hear anything on the street outside the fence of the property," Amar said during the 2021 meeting.

On one slide in the presentation emblazoned in bold, capitalized letters was the statement: "No noise will be heard anywhere outside the premises."

"They (Digihost) haven't even come close to meeting the promises they made three years ago," said Council President Frank DiBernardo during the May 14 meeting. "Right now, we've got to figure out how we can shut them down, quiet them up, legally, without exposing us to a big liability."

North Tonawanda Mayor Austin Tylec told The News that Digihost has applied for a permit to build an acoustic barrier on the property, likely to prevent some of the noise from reaching neighbors' homes. The wall may be similar to a wall already on the property, which residents said has done little to dampen the sound of the facility.

The company may also be doing "equipment updates over the next few weeks," Tylec said, "which they claim will reduce the noise."

But those claims don't comfort residents who said they are tired of empty promises from Digihost and the city to reduce the noise from the facility.

"No one's addressing it," said Deborah Gondek, a North Tonawanda resident who has fought against the Digihost operation since its inception. "They just keep passing the buck and they set the city up for residents to bear the brunt of it, which is disappointing, to said the least."

Expert: City should update noise law

Tylec and Zebulske said the city cannot legally force Digihost to quiet down because it doesn't have trained staff or the proper equipment to enforce its noise ordinance.

"Can you imagine the cops said, 'we can't enforce our speed limits because we don't have any radar guns and we don't know how to use them?' " Blomberg said. "If you've got a law on the books, you should be able to enforce it."

Blomberg, an acoustics expert based in Vermont, has trained police departments and city officials on how to enforce their noise ordinances. He has also helped cities rewrite their noise ordinances to ensure they are enforceable, he said.

The city should either hire a professional to take decibel readings of the noise coming from the Digihost facility, or train its police officers and buy the proper equipment, Blomberg suggested.

Blomberg said certified sound level meters can cost between $250 and $500, and a calibrator necessary to ensure the equipment is working properly costs another $500. Training that Blomberg conducts to ensure police officers know how to properly use the equipment could cost about $5,000 for eight to nine officers, he added.

Additionally, Blomberg said the city should update its noise ordinance "so that the decibel level is the tool of last resort."

The current noise ordinance focuses on protection from "unreasonable noise." Blomberg noted that reasonableness is something people can disagree on.

Instead, the law should focus on ensuring residents are protected from "plainly audible noise" that can be heard on their property, he said.

Noise pollution can impact health

Reducing the noise from the Digihost facility could be vital for protecting the health of the neighboring community, said Erica Walker, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Brown University and founder of the Community Noise Lab.

The noise coming from the Digihost facility isn't so loud that it's killing the hearing of nearby residents. Instead, it's noise that residents said is annoying, disturbs their sleep and often penetrates through the walls and windows of their homes.

Such noise triggers the body's fight-or-flight response, Walker said, which is a stress response.

"That kind of stimulation can lead to a bunch of risk factors in the long run that can lead to the manifestation of pretty serious cardiovascular and mental health-related outcomes," she said.

Examples of those outcomes include anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, inability to regulate one's immune response, cardiovascular-related mortality, hypertension and strokes, Walker said.

Peter James, an associate professor and director of the University of California at Davis Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, echoed Walker's concerns.

"If you have this chronic disturbance, it can lead to downstream consequences," James said. "In an ideal world, if we really took noise seriously as a health threat I think we'd have a more systematic way to measure it in our communities."

Residents consider lawsuit

The North Tonawanda Police Department took decibel readings around the Digihost facility in May, according to Tylec, and some of those readings exceeded the city's noise ordinance, he said.

But without the proper equipment, staff trained on the equipment and a comprehensive sound monitoring plan, the city fears that any action it could take would be met with a legal challenge from the crypto mining company.

"The best thing to do is to just try and work with them as best we can; try and make them good neighbors for all the residents here," Tylec said.

The phrase "good neighbors" is one that residents have heard Tylec say countless times over the years while the noise pollution from Digihost has never ceased.

"They're afraid of a lawsuit from that company," said Remington Drive resident O'Connor. "But they don't seem to be afraid of a class-action suit from the neighborhood here for a failure to protect us from a nuisance. That's a possibility."