Concerns raised surrounding noise levels from cryptocurrency farm

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

Proponents and opponents to the idea of rezoning the lagoon property had their say during Monday night’s meeting of Fort Frances Town Council.

As part of a public meeting on the potential re-zoning of the lagoon property to allow for industrial-scale computing, commonly used for cryptocurrency mining operations, and the installation of a solar farm, council gave the floor to members of the public who wished to either have their concerns or support heard and summarized for future decision making. The proposed changes will see 50,000 computers running cryptocurrency mining in a building from converted sea-cans along with the required cooling systems, and an additional solar farm and battery storage that will help to feed energy back into the local power grid.

The public meeting was attended by Mitch LePage, the manager for BMI Group, along with several associates who are the applicants for the proposed amendment and lagoon property projects. LePage noted that even under the zoning change, the lagoons themselves will continue on as they have thus far, highlighting that the only change will be to allow for additional projects to exist on the land.

“The land basically that is developed for the lagoon will stay the same and operate under the same permit conditions as it currently does,” he said.

“This will be a new development in addition thereof. It wouldn’t impact the infrastructure that exists. The lagoon itself, which is probably a concern or question in people’s minds, ‘what happens to the lagoon?’ The lagoon is under its own permit conditions and has to go a closure plan with the MOECC [Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, currently the Ministry of Environment Conservation and Parks] and that would follow its due course. We don’t intend on changing that requirement or modifying that in any way, what we’re seeking is to use the additional lands that are currently undeveloped to benefit the town in an energy sector.”

The proposal is not without opposition. Two members of the public took to the floor to voice their concerns with the idea and potential impact to the community, in addition to several written submission received by council and administration.

The first speaker to address council was Pam Munn, who stated that she is a resident of Cornwall Avenue, which runs immediately adjacent to the lagoon property in the north end of town. Munn said she has concerns over the eventual fate of the lagoons themselves, which she says are still full of water and pollutants from the time of the mill closure. She alleged there is an existing agreement that those lands be restored once they were no longer in use.

“When the lagoon was built in the 1970’s the family was told that when it was no longer in use by the paper mill, the property would be restored to its original state, that being farm and forest land,” Munn said.

“To this date, no remediation has taken place. The lagoons are still full of water and waste and even though some people may say it’s been cleaned up, trust me, it hasn’t. We as a family have dealt with a lot with regards to the lagoon over the years. First and foremost it has reduced the value of our properties, and as such, we are not in favour of any further development on the lagoon properties.”

Munn also said that through research she has done about similar industrial-scale computing sites in other municipalities, she is worried the increased noise level from the installation will affect those who live nearby, citing a statement from LePage in the March 23, 2022 issue of the Fort Frances Times where he said the typical noise level generated from the cooling fans necessary to keep the computers running would be roughly 105 decibels. According to a chart by Yale University, a chainsaw from 3 feet away is roughly 110 decibels in volume, with hearing pain beginning at 125 decibels. Munn said she’s concerned the noise would be a constant thorn to those living nearby.

“This is the equivalent noise that a helicopter would make outside our doors and windows 24 hours a day, seven days a week nonstop,” she said.

“While researching cryptocurrency data mining, I discovered videos, which I have sent the links to all members of council, in particular from Virginia Beach, Virginia, where a cryptocurrency mining facility was built next to a residential development. Residents there say it’s like having a jet taking off in their backyard constantly. They cannot even hear each other speaking while sitting in the yard.”

Munn said she’s concerned the noise levels would have damaging effects on young families, particularly children, who live in the area. There’s also the matter of wastewater from water cooling systems, which she worries could potentially impact the environment.

Jim Strachan also spoke to council, stating that he is concerned about planning going on around the lagoons before they are completely dealt with.

“Once we get an industry in here, what possible use would the lagoon serve to any new business that might come to Fort Frances?” Strachan asked.

“The open ponds take up a portion of the land that would be for the proposed electrical solar farm, so that’s also another problem. The company plans to start with six sea-cans, then expand. I don’t think their plans to stack these cans, with sides or bottom open, will work out in this country. From October 1 to May 31, I’d like to see them wide open buildings running computers. If I were a suspicious person, I would think this project is an attempt to avoid the lagoon problem, which some of us surrounding homeowners know is leaching.”

LePage noted his quote from the Times article Munn cited was inaccurate, saying that at the time he spoke he wasn’t aware of the actual levels of the noise produced, and he explained that further testing at another site they own and operate shows the resulting noise is “considerably less” than that over a distance.

LePage’s associate Rob Coolbeck further explained that the result of the sound testing found that at a distance of 100 yards, the noise produced was closer in levels to what would be heard from an electrical transformer station, similar in nature to the one located between Cornwall and Walker Avenues.

“In addition to that, the location where we’ll be putting the sea-cans would be at the back of the property,” Coolbeck said.

“It wouldn’t be at the front. Additionally we would be looking to put in some berms or some other sound-mitigating, whether it’s trees or something other to that effect. On the liquid cooling, my understanding of liquid cooling is the development of that is moving forward and it wouldn’t be a pass-through ,where you would be putting the liquid back into the ground, it would actually be something you would be circulating, so it wouldn’t have the polluting effect that it would end up in the lagoons or anything like that.”

While LePage did provide some data on similar decibel levels from similar operations and equivalencies, council stated they were hopeful that the applicants could return with more concrete data for the town as well as those living nearby.

“It would be really beneficial, I think, to people in the community and also council if we had an accurate estimate of the noise produced by the number of sea-cans that you’re going to erect at maximum,” Coun. Andrew Hallikas said.

“The other thing that’s important for people to know is that decibels measured at source, that’s a measurement of sound intensity, that decreases rapidly with distance. It would be beneficial to the community if, once you knew the source intensity, if you could then provide the community with what the intensity level would be at 100-metre increments, because the intensity is going to drop off, and it would be nice for people who live near there to know what the intensity would be approximately where they live.”

Hallikas also asked if the applicants had the frequency readings for the noise produced, though the applicants said they did not at this time.

LePage said they are not in the business of causing grief for the community, and are committed to working with the town and keeping residents informed to the process by working in a transparent manner.

“We live in this community also, and therefore are interested in the opportunity but also in being respectful to our neighbours,” he said.

“We’re very cognizant of the noise concerns, and our intent is obviously to make sure that we mitigate the noise to an acceptable level, something like Fort Frances Power Corp. We know it’s around 66db, people live there every day, and that doesn’t bother them. I’m quite convinced that we don’t want to be anything worse than that, so we will do what it takes to be far enough or provide the noise mitigation to make it respectful for the people to live there.”

No decision was made during Monday night’s meeting. The comments collected from the public session and all submitted letters will be summarized and submitted to the appropriate committee, where they will be taken under advisement for future decision making.