Don’t Let Bitcoin Mining Ruin Seneca Lake

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This article and photo appeared as a Letter to the Editor in on August 4th, 2021.

Bitcoin has come to the Finger Lakes, and the results are potentially disastrous. Globally, Bitcoin’s yearly energy usage is higher than the country of Colombia’s, a staggering fact given that Bitcoin’s main use is as a speculative investment tool. But the small-scale effects of this industry are no less drastic, and the appearance of mass Bitcoin mining in our state threaten our state’s energy goals, but also local ecosystems and human communities.

Most of us in Onondaga County know the damage that corporations can do in this regard, as demonstrated by Onondaga Lake. For hundreds of years, the lake was a central to the Onondaga Nation, as well as an important place for the entire Six Nations people, because it is where they founded their ancient democracy. After it was wrongfully taken from the Onondaga Nation, it remained a source of water, food, and recreation for the settler population until a parade of corporations (the Solvay Process Company and Allied Chemical, among others) poisoned the water and turned it into one of the most polluted lakes in the U.S. Swimming was banned in 1940, then fishing in 1970. A half-hearted attempt at cleaning it has been made, but far more work needs to be done before it can once again become a cultural touchstone for our county, and, more importantly, for the people of the Onondaga Nation. This century should be about making amends and healing, reparations and cleanup, not new messes.

Bitcoin is supposed to be online and in “the cloud.” So it shouldn’t have real world environmental impacts, right? Wrong! Bitcoins are actually “mined” using huge quantities of electricity going into computers that produce new Bitcoin by completing complicated mathematical processes. In practice, Greenidge Generation, a natural gas operation the shore of Seneca Lake, recently opened up a facility where 8,000 computers are used to mine Bitcoin powered by its natural gas — a dirty energy source that contributes to climate change and reduced air quality. To accomplish this, the facility draws in huge amounts of water from Keuka Outlet, a smaller body of water that flows into Seneca Lake, and then releases that water at much higher temperatures back into the outlet. Although the lake’s overall temperature is unaffected, this process heats the outlet significantly to such a degree that one local kayaker noted that “you feel like you’re in a hot tub.”

Dale Irwin, the capitalist CEO of the facility, has incredulously insisted that the plant boosts Upstate’s economy because it has “about 35 employees.” The insinuation is that 35 jobs will make a significant contribution to filling the gap created when a previous generation of capitalist ghouls moved their factories away from Upstate New York to places where the workers weren’t unionized. Just like the old factories that contaminated Onondaga Lake with their pollution, Greenidge will no doubt cut and run after it ruins Seneca Lake, but with one big difference: Greenidge employs a whole lot fewer workers!

Make no mistake, this conflict does not fit into the easy box of “the economy vs. the environment” with workers on one side and activists on the other. The increased temperature in Keuka Outlet puts it at risk of developing algal blooms, which threatens the drinkability of water in the entirety of Seneca Lake, just as it did recently in Lake George. City water departments throughout New York state are now on constant alert for these algal blooms that threaten our health. In fact, the state’s Department of Conservation just provided tentative approval for the Syracuse Department of Water to chemically treat Skaneateles in the event of just such a bloom.

But this environmental health matter is also about jobs. Seneca Lake Guardian’s Yvonne Taylor points out that Seneca Lake “is a drinking water resource for 100,000 people” and that “this is the heart of Finger Lakes wine country. We are now currently supporting 50,000 jobs … All that is 100% dependent on our clean water and clean air.” This conflict is not the economy vs. the environment, it’s 50,000 jobs, our water supply, and our environment vs. 35 jobs and the soulless profits of Greenidge Generation.

This is an important moment when things can be fixed or continue to get worse: Greenidge’s air permit is up for re-evaluation in September for the first time since it began mining Bitcoin, so we have less than two months to rid the region of this dual environmental and economic threat. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for everyone in Central New York who cares about health, employment, and the environment. Many communities are mobilizing — in Syracuse, for example, Democratic Socialists of America is reaching out to environmental, labor and community organizations to address this urgent matter. Let’s leave capitalists that pump their waste into New York’s lakes in the last millennium.

-Mac Carden, Syracuse DSA EcoSocialist Committee

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