By Pam Zubeck
Stacks of shipping containers muffle the drone of a bitcoin mining operation in northwest Colorado Springs, edging the plant closer to compliance with the city’s noise ordinance.
But the low and constant hum continues about 350 feet from the Chelsea Glen neighborhood, making residents wonder if they’ll ever recapture the peace and quiet they once knew before 3G Venture II moved in last fall at 1625 Garden of the Gods Road.
“It’s considerably lower compared to three or four months ago,” said Ron Graham-Becker, the most persistent critic of the 3G plant.
But nighttime readings still slightly exceed the city’s 50-decibel limit in residential areas, he said, adding, “I just want it to be legal.”
So does John Chen, owner of 3G, who said he’s spent “easily over a half-million dollars” on containers and low-decibel fans to squelch the noise.
“I have no problem spending money on things that are productive and have positive results,” he said.
Not enough evidence
California-based 3G purchased much of the former Intel plant in 2018 and began mining cryptocurrency in October. The operation brought the loud buzzing of fans cooling thousands of computers that process mathematical problems and thereby score bitcoin for investors.
After the city failed to take action for months in response to residents’ complaints, Planning Director Peter Wysocki issued a notice of violation letter to 3G on May 14.
A June 21 compliance test was pushed back pending arrival of the city’s newly ordered testing equipment, which cost about $1,000, and on July 11, city officials set up in the neighborhood. They used a video camera, anemometer (to measure wind speed), temperature/humidity gauge, decibel meter and timer. That test monitored the noise for 79 minutes starting at about 7:30 p.m. (The camera allows officials to monitor how and when dog barks and door slams impact the decibel meter.)
According to records obtained via an open-records request, Neighborhood Services Manager Mitchel Hammes said in a July 11 memo to several top city officials, including mayor’s Chief of Staff Jeff Greene and City Councilor Don Knight, that the sound ranged between “48 dB [decibels] and 60+ dB due to barking dogs, wildlife, people talking, vehicles, and aircraft.”
Those results, Hammes wrote, led him to conclude, “At this time, I do not believe we have enough clear and convincing evidence to support a criminal charge.”
Yet, Hammes vowed to conduct another test after which he would “converse with the City Prosecution Division Chief to review evidence.”
On July 16, the city again set up its equipment for about an hour at 8:21 p.m., recording noise that “ranged consistently between 48 decibels and 50.5 decibels,” Hammes said via email.
“We will examine the evidence in significantly more detail, which will take more time, to determine the next appropriate enforcement measures,” he said. “We will continue to conduct additional inspections as needed based on feedback, observations, and future physical changes to the conditions of the property.”
That’s good, Graham-Becker and others say, because the problem is far from solved.
Ed Peach, who lives a few doors east of Graham-Becker, reports he’s “not happy” with the mitigation measures. When Peach, who sleeps with earphones to block the noise, rises at 4 a.m. for work, he’s greeted by the plant’s hum, which he describes as “loud.”
Chen said he’s committed to satisfying the neighbors and has stacked 20 shipping containers around the plant. Chen also bought “low noise fans” to replace higher-decibel models, and he’ll tilt them toward the mountains, away from the neighborhood, to further reduce the impact. He will finish that in August, he said.
“I’m just attacking this from all different possible angles,” he said, including improvements not on his portion of the former Intel property.
Chen said he plans to add “very tall and big pine trees” south of the plant to further buffer the sound in the residential area. “What they will see is the trees,” he said. “It kind of beautifies it, and it will block the noise.”
Finally, Chen said he’s looking for artists to paint a mural onto the shipping containers strictly for aesthetic purposes.
“I don’t want this to be a negative thing for the community,” he said. “At the end of the day, maybe something positive can come of it.”
But some residents say he has a ways to go.
Close to compliance
Although the city’s readings place Chen’s operation close to compliance, the constant hum continues to trigger complaints, and Graham-Becker questions whether the plant complies with the 50-decibel limit from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. as the ordinance requires.
He said his own meter routinely shows readings above 50 decibels after midnight.
And the plant still draws complaints.
“The noise is horrible!!” one resident wrote to the city on June 3. “I think the containers made it worse!”
On June 25, another wrote, “Very loud server fans that seem to run 24-7,” and yet another said, “For several months we have heard a loud fan whining noise coming from the old Intel building… . Last week it increased substantially at times, enough to keep us from sleeping.”
Hammes said the city has to build a case that will stand up in court.
“The city administration and my boss [Wysocki] have said, ‘Hey, if there’s a violation we can prove, the prosecutor feels comfortable prosecuting,’” he said.
But don’t expect to see Chen in a courtroom any time soon.
“We work toward voluntary compliance,” Hammes said. “If we get to a point where we feel comfortable there’s a violation and this person is responsible beyond a shadow of a doubt, then we issue a summons and refer it to the city prosecutor.”
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent.