The Port of Walla Walla scaled back its lease and sale agreement for development of a new blockchain facility in western Walla Walla County but was not convinced, despite public objections Thursday, to end negotiations with the developer or even hold off on a decision.
After an hour and a half of opposing and sometimes fiery public comments, the three commissioners unanimously agreed to embark on a land lease and purchase option for 10 acres between the Dodd Road Industrial Park and Wallula Gap Business Park.
They agreed to hold off on an additional option that would have allowed for the sale of 30 more acres on top of that.
Instead, commissioners said the smaller scale will give Ant Creek LLC a chance to establish itself and demonstrate whether the blockchain technology has legs for expansion and can also get the buy-in of the public.
The move was heckled and booed by some in the audience. Overwhelming testimony from the 25 people who spoke centered around concern that the power equivalent of 24,000 residences would be dedicated to a project benefiting a relatively unidentified few and cast doubt on the public’s confidence in the Port to move wisely.
“It extracts electricity and creates wealth for the owner with no trickle down,” Walla Walla resident Robb Lincoln told commissioners.
Other developments, such as Wallula’s dedicated produce train to New York, may also create wealth for owners. But it employs more people and adds value to existing industry, Lincoln pointed out.
Whether the 10-acre plan will move forward at all is not yet known. The altered terms of the initial proposal up for consideration Thursday would need to meet approval from the applicant.
Jeff Stearns, Ant Creek’s director of operations, exited the meeting after the decision without a hint of whether the terms might be acceptable.
The meeting was the first public opportunity to hear directly from Ant Creek, which Stearns described as both a blockchain and artificial-intelligence company led by two different CEOs on each side. He also described it as the largest manufacturer of cryptopcurrency mining equipment in the world, a characterization that matches that of Bitmain, whose co-founder, Jihan Wu, is listed as a contact on Ant Creek’s public registration records.
Notwithstanding, there was little mention of cryptocurrency mining at the proposed site until members of the public continued to ask for clarification.
Some focus was spent on describing the potential applications for blockchain technology in general. That component, which Stearns described as “disruptive technology,” is a public electronic ledger that keeps records of transactions of all kinds of information. It is not new, but its reach and application is becoming more understood.
Commissioner Mike Fredrickson listed numerous possibilities where blockchain applications can have reach and meaning, including in food security.
Ultimately though Stearns said this facility will be used for the application in which blockchain has become widely associated: cryptocurrency mining. Stearns did not specify bitcoin, which residents pointed out is different from other kinds of cryptocurrency.
Therein was another part of the struggle many residents expressed: The nondisclosure agreements and lack of information provided by Ant Creek, the Port and Columbia Rural Electric Association make it nearly impossible for residents to become informed and ask questions.
Resident Norm Osterman said the focus on blockchain technology rather than cryptocurrency mining seemed like a way to soften the idea with more neutral language.
“But I suspect that 100 percent of the greatest part will be used for bitcoin,” he said. “I think it’s misdirection, frankly.”
Peder Fretheim told commissioners he has spent considerable time studying cyrptocurrency and bitcoin. He called it a “very secure, very expensive way to transfer money from one person to another.” Four to six of those take place each second, he said, producing about a ton of carbon dioxide pollution for every transfer.
“It’s not used in legitimate business,” he said. “It’s used for two things: transactions you want to hide from the law and speculation.
“If you look around and you can’t see the sucker, you are the sucker.”
The meeting began tensely with microphone challenges and procedural gaffes. One person bellowing out, “Who’s running this meeting?” at commission President Peter Swant set a tone that carried through with disruptions and frustrations over process.
Commissioners aimed to set up boundaries for public comment, with two-minute time limits that are new to the Port but not so for public meetings with such a high turnout. But a number of people continued to speak out from the audience. One person was escorted out.
Columbia REA CEO Les Teel told commissioners the membership-owned electric co-op has more than adequate resources to meet the demand for the project. He said, without disclosing finer details, the co-op and its members are not at risk.
“No matter what happens a year from now or five years from now, we are fully protected,” Teel said.
If approved by both parties, the 10-acre lease would run through the end of the year, at which time Ant Creek would determine whether to exercise an option to buy the property.
The lease value, with base rent and a 12.84 percent state leasehold tax, would be $4,701.67 per month. If the purchase option is exercised, the land would be sold for $15,000 per acre, for a total of $150,000. Lease payments, minus the leasehold tax, would be applied to the purchase.
The Port would pay about $140,000 in design cost for access improvements and about $300,000 in the extension of potable and fire-suppression water to the property.
Ant Creek would pay for a $2.5 million roadway that would provide access not only to the property now but also to other surrounding properties. There is currently no access.
Stearns said 25 to 35 jobs are projected for full-time, fully benefitted employees.
Swant said the decision was a difficult one. The project would not only meet the Port’s mission of job and tax creation but also provide infrastructure. He said numerous people not at the meeting had voiced support for it.
“We are elected to do what the people would like us to do,” he said. In a community of 60,000 residents, representing the wants of the 60 or 70 who attended the meeting “makes it difficult.”