Editorials, Opinion

Ignorance is not bliss

How can DEP approve permit without knowing what facility will be?

As you might have known from reading last week’s letters to the editor or Ben Conley’s article, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection approved a construction permit for a “science facility” slated to come to the Morgantown Industrial Park  that will get its energy from parent company Marion Energy Partners’ nearby natural gas well pad.

The working assumption is that the 10,000-square-foot “science facility” or “data center” is a cryptocurrency mining operation, but no one knows for sure. Because no matter how much poking, prodding and pestering our reporters and community members do, no one will say. And it’s ludicrous that the DEP approved a permit without knowing what the facility will actually house.

For context, a cryptocurrency mining operation is little more than a warehouse filled with computers that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.  According to Investopedia, “ ‘Mining’ is performed using sophisticated hardware that solves an extremely complex computational math problem. The first computer to find the solution to the problem receives the next block of bitcoins and the process begins again.”

In short, if your computer can solve the mathematical puzzle first, you get a share of the cryptocurrency your computer helped to create. According to PC Magazine, as of November 2021, the reward for mining a block is 6.25 bitcoins, and each unit can be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Of course, all those computers need electricity. The facility will also need a powerful cooling system to keep the computers from overheating. Ultimately, the facility will use tons of energy that, in turn, generates pollution. We don’t know for sure this facility will house computers, but we know it will have four engines running all day, every day.

Beyond objections to a crypto facility in general, we cannot fathom how the DEP is allowed to approve pollution outputs without knowing the details of the project. According to the DEP’s Air Quality Division, it “has no explicit authority to request the applicant to disclose the function of the ‘data center.’ ”

That needs to change.

When it comes to matters of protecting the environment vs. producing or using energy, we have to weigh the pros against the cons. We often tolerate a certain amount of pollution in exchange for services or amenities that benefit the community — through jobs or recreational opportunity. But when it comes to this proposed development at the industrial park, there’s not enough information to know if the environmental risks are outweighed by community benefits. 

The DEP needs to be given the authority to require additional information for potential polluting projects, so it — and the public — can make informed decisions about whether to support the project. 

Because, if the science facility is a cryptocurrency mining operation, the owners will be paying themselves for the natural gas in addition to collecting the bitcoin rewards, raking in the cash, while the   community only gets dirty air and a useless eyesore.