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DEC needed months to review public comments that ran 100-to-1 against Greenidge’s bitcoin operation

  • / Updated:
  • Peter Mantius 

Nearly 4,000 public comments on Greenidge Generation’s bid to renew a state air emissions permit for its Bitcoin mining operation ran nearly 100-to-1 negative last Fall, according to a recent analysis by researchers from Cornell University.

The findings shed new light on the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s claim in late January — as its deadline for ruling on the permit loomed — that it needed until March 31 to “complete its ongoing review” of the comments.

Under a Freedom of Information request, the Cornell researchers obtained all 3,919 comments submitted to the DEC before a Nov. 19 comment deadline. They found that 3,872, or 98.8 percent, opposed the air permit renewal, while 38, or 0.96 percent, expressed support. Another 9 comments were not easy to categorize, the researchers said.

Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY, said Monday that the stated basis for the administrative delay “does not ring true.”

Lerner added: “Nearly 4,000 New Yorkers took time and energy to voice their opinion as part of the democratic process. It’s really up to the DEC to honor that effort in a timely manner, not use it as an excuse to delay decision making.”

Just before the agency’s new self-imposed March 31 deadline, DEC officials said they would need until June 30 to rule because Greenidge had proposed last minute “mitigation measures” that needed to be evaluated.

Those who opposed renewal of Greenidge’s air permit (red) were distributed statewide and vastly outnumbered those who voiced support for the new permit (green).

The second delay — until two days after Gov. Kathy Hochul’s June 28 Democratic primary — surprised opponents of the Bitcoin operation because DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos had repeatedly stated that Greenidge’s Dresden power plant has not shown how it will comply with New York’s 2019 climate law.

Seggos told WSKG last week that the company’s latest proposal merited a “deep dive.” But he went on to say: “Our perception nonetheless stands that this is a facility that’s going to have an uphill battle complying with the legislation.”

The law requires the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. In an August 2021 letter to the DEC, Greenidge acknowledged that its onsite and upstream GHG emissions would be 64 percent above the limit it seeks in its permit renewal application.

The DEC had not characterized the public comments before Owen Marshall, a post-doctoral researcher at Cornell, and Ph.D student Marina Zafiris, filed a Freedom of Information request March 15 for all public comments received by Nov. 19. A day later, the DEC sent a thumb drive with the data.

They presented their findings at a press conference (watch here) coordinated by Seneca Lake Guardian.

Using text analysis software, the researchers found that commenters overwhelmingly urged the DEC to deny the air permit renewal, and many supported a statewide moratorium on Bitcoin’s proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining pending a full environmental review.

Greenidge President Dale Irwin dismissed the results as “a statewide digital campaign” orchestrated by “our few remaining opponents.”

Irwin added: “We didn’t need to employ campaign-style tactics; our community support is indisputable, as the record reflects…. To those who know Greenidge best, those people who actually live near our facility, the call is clear; the permit should be renewed.” (Irwin’s complete statement.)

Finger Lakes Partners (Billboard)

Zafiris acknowledged that nearly half of the comments included the identical wording: “Save NY from Climate-Killing Cryptocurrency.” Both the Sierra Club and Seneca Lake Guardian had encouraged members to comment.

But Marshall noted that standardized wording suggested by advocates was typically followed by personal remarks.

For example, one Ithaca resident wrote: “This project serves only the owner’s financial interests and provides no benefits to the Finger Lakes region – it will only serve to worsen our air quality and produce carbon emissions that we need to be eliminating in order to reduce the risks of climate change.”

Greenidge’s Title V air permit expired in September, but it has been administratively extended. Meanwhile, the company has continued to expand its Bitcoin operation in Dresden, where it has recently added thousands of new mining machines.

Last week the company announced that it mined 561 Bitcoin in the first three months of 2022, which would be worth $22.7 million at today’s market price. In recent weeks it has arranged debt issues to finance the purchase of about 30,000 new mining rigs this year. They are expected to be installed in Dresden or in Greenidge’s new Bitcoin facility in South Carolina.

The possibility that the DEC could deny renewal of the air permit has weighed heavily on Greenidge’s shares, which are traded on the NASDAQ market. (Although the stock is publicly traded, Greenidge is controlled by Atlas Holdings, a private equity firm based in Connecticut that holds a large majority of voting shares).

While both DEC delay announcements briefly lifted Greenidge shares — the March announcement triggered a short-lived 33 percent spike — the stock has fallen roughly 60 percent this year, while the price of Bitcoin itself has declined about 16 percent.

Earlier this month, a Yates County Supreme Court Judge dismissed a petition against Greenidge and the Town of Torrey that had challenged the site plan the company proposed to expand its Bitcoin operation.

The petitioners — the Sierra Club, Seneca Lake Guardian, Committee to Protect the Finger Lakes and 30 individuals — alleged that warm water discharges from the plant may trigger harmful algal blooms in the Seneca Lake water, which they use for recreation and household activities and in some cases, drinking. Several of the individual petitioners also said excessive noise from the Bitcoin mining machines disrupts their life at home.

Judge Daniel Doyle ruled the warm water argument “irrelevant” because the project under consideration was the construction of buildings to house mining machines.

Doyle further ruled that none of the individuals had legal “standing” to sue based on noise complaints because “none of the petitioners lives closer than 2,000 feet to the project.”

Greenidge’s Irwin responded the the ruling, saying: “Various overlapping opponents have now lost all five legal actions related to the facility.”

Joseph Campbell of Seneca Lake Guardian called the ruling “a green light to continue wreaking havoc on the environment….We will continue to push (Gov. Hochul) to put New Yorkers ahead of this Connecticut-based private equity firm hell bent on climate-killing Bitcoin mining.”