After months of delay, NY still reviewing 4,000 public comments for Finger Lakes power plant owned by Bitcoin miners

By April 25, 2022Bitcoin Business
Click here to view original web page at gothamist.com
Greenridge Generation power plant on the banks of Seneca Lake, in Dresden, New York, October 15th, 2021.
Greenridge Generation power plant on the banks of Seneca Lake.

Seneca Lake residents such as Yvonne Taylor are preparing for tourism season this month by hauling out the docks and patio furniture, but a cloud is looming over her joy at the start of sunny, busy days.

Taylor and other local business owners are waiting anxiously for Gov. Kathy Hochul and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to deliver a decision on whether they will deny or approve the air permit for Greenidge Generation, a natural gas-fired power plant that makes more than $100 million a year mining Bitcoin.

That decision has been delayed more than three months, while the original permits expired nearly seven months ago. One of the major reasons for the wait, according to the DEC, is the nearly 4,000 public comments submitted on November 19th, 2021.

At a Monday morning press conference, two Cornell University researchers disclosed that they had reviewed all those comments in less than a week — and found that 98.8% were strongly opposed to renewal of a for-profit power plant running 24/7 with very little public use.

Fewer than than 1% of commenters supported the project, contrary to earlier claims Greenidge made to Gothamist in February that they had full community support, and those opposed were a loud and very small minority.

“This delay is not genuinely being caused by the number of comments in need of review,” said Taylor, co-founder of the local environmental advocacy nonprofit Seneca Lake Guardian, which hosted the press conference. “We hope the governor will get off her you-know-what, and make a decision on this before the primary and prove that she is working for the people of New York State and not this wealthy crypto bro company.”

One of the Cornell data researchers, Dr. Owen Marshall, said he submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to the DEC for the public comments on March 15th, and less than a week later, he received a thumb drive containing a mix of 3,919 PDF files and Microsoft Word files.

“It's commendable that they're [DEC] carefully looking at these comments and taking them seriously,” Marshall said. “But I was also curious — why does it take this long to read through that many comments and get a sense of things. Is it a very complicated situation?”

Marshall and his research partner, data scientist Marina Zafiris, wanted to see it for themselves.

Within a couple of hours, Zafiris was able to write code to analyze the text data of all the comments using all open source software. They then refined their algorithms to scan the document subject lines for key phrases such as “deny Greenidge’s title V air permit.” They manually reviewed nearly 20% of the files to double-check their work.

Afterward, they mapped the responses to determine how many were out-of-state responses. So far, they have only mapped 65% of the comments, but nearly 100% of those are from New Yorkers.

“I do want to make this clear: This isn’t complex. This is simply finding patterns within text data,” Zafiris said. “It would be simple for any experts that the DEC would hire to be able to do a similar analysis.”

In response to the press conference, Greenidge Generation said it has overwhelming support from the Yates County legislature, the local farm bureau and IBEW union. They also accused opponents of running an effort to submit false comments.

“Our few remaining opponents have offered zero factual or legal basis for a denial of our permit renewal,” Greenidge Generation wrote in a statement via email. “But they did run a statewide digital campaign to generate thousands of pre-packaged submissions. We didn’t need to employ campaign-style tactics. Our community support is indisputable, as the record reflects.”

Seneca Lake residents and environmental groups have cited concerns that Greenidge could set a precedent for cryptocurrency mining in New York State, where a handful of defunct fossil fuel plants are offline and potentially available for lucrative operations. Aside from the environmental concerns, locals point out the plant is providing little to no benefit to the electric grid as it functions almost entirely to power the crypto mining operation.

They also see the decision as a test of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, (CLCPA) which requires all sectors to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Last week, 13 members of Congress sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the cryptomining industry for infringing on environmental laws.

Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, a civil engineering professor at Cornell University who wasn’t involved in the public commentary analysis, said he’s skeptical that Greenidge Generation can meet the requirements of the CLCPA.

He said the plant only has three options: drastically reduce its mining operations and lose millions in profits; spend millions of dollars to switch to a more efficient turbine operation or spend even more and build their own solar and wind farms.

“What will it be?” said Ingraffea, who assisted local environmental groups in calculating emissions. “Between now and that final decision on re-permitting, Greenidge must not be allowed to emit at a level higher than their current, and expired permit, including upstream methane emissions.”

Greenidge appears to have no plans to reduce their output. According to their most recent SEC filing dated September 21st, 2021, they are planning to increase their nearly 20,000-computer operation to 32,500 computers, which would utilize nearly 95 megawatts of power or nearly the plant’s maximum capacity.

“Spring has sprung in the Finger Lakes, and people are spending more time outdoors exposed to the harmful particulate matter being emitted from the smokestacks of this facility and the damaging noise,” Taylor said. “Greenidge is getting a green light for another several months to continue damaging our community, and our very vibrant economic engine of agriculture and tourism in the meanwhile.”

After initially pledging to release a decision on January 31st, one is now expected to come June 30th, two days after the Democratic primaries. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who is running for governor, has called on Hochul to stop cryptocurrency mining in the state.

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