The sleepless residents of Bonner finally got a chance to look the source of their unrest in the eye.

A representative from bitcoin mine Project Spokane — not owner Sean Walsh, a “very busy businessman” who lives out of state, but the new local manager, Jason Vaughan, who joined the company a month ago — sat in the front row of the Bonner School cafeteria as residents pleaded for the noise to stop.

Ryan Thompson, a 30-something man who lives two miles up the Blackfoot River with his wife and their 17-month-old infant, was polite, but his comparison was provocative.

“What I don’t want to see happen is a repeat of history,” he said. “This place suffered the consequences of businesses that sat upstream of the Blackfoot and the Clark Fork, and all that pollution trickled down and hurt this community immensely.”

The collective description offered by the 70 people who attended the Feb. 5 special meeting of the Bonner-Milltown Community Council is indeed insidious, even novelistic. Mike Harrison’s hummingbirds are gone. Carol Kenyon started taking anxiety medication. Dogs no longer want to play outside. Marriages are strained. Thompson’s wife, Caitlin, gets headaches. Other bird species, which rely on sound to detect danger, may have “avian PTSD,” said Erick Greene, a University of Montana wildlife biologist asked to lend his expertise. And if the sound is driving birds away, what might it be doing to Thompson’s baby’s brain, she wondered?

It reads like postmodern sci-fi, but the creeping noise pollution, a byproduct of minting cryptocurrency, will remain reality for Bonner-area residents for months to come. They’ve been complaining for eight months already, prompting the mill site landlord, Steve Nelson, to design a mitigation plan that involves replacing more than 400 fans. But the fans can’t be installed until winter ends, and even the acoustics engineer hired to study the problem says the fix will only cut sound levels in half, at best.

Nelson is treated as a community hero for his work redeveloping the former lumber mill, and he speaks in sincere tones. Council members even warned attendees not to “beat up” on him. All three county commissioners and several state lawmakers attended, though none suggested solutions.

Residents were more willing to put the screws to Project Spokane, which several attendees suggested is more interested in profit than being good neighbors. In particular, the company’s aspiration to quadruple its mining capacity seemed at odds with Vaughan’s claim that a quieter, liquid cooling system for the servers would be “extremely cost-prohibitive.”

“What they’ve done is revitalize this mill and bring back lots of jobs and lots of payroll and lots of products,” resident Gary Matson said of property co-owners Nelson and Mike Boehme. “Bitcoin is a little bit different. We don’t trust it.”

Staff Reporter

Staff reporter Derek Brouwer joined the Indy in 2015 after year-long stints covering education at the Billings Gazette and the Helena Independent Record. He graduated from Montana State University. Follow him on Twitter: @derekwbrouwer.

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