Yvonne is the Vice-President of Seneca Lake Guardian, an all-volunteer grassroots organization dedicated to protecting New York’s Finger Lakes and its residents from environmentally destructive projects. She started Seneca Lake Guardian, then called Gas Free Seneca, with two friends in 2009 when an oil and gas company bought an abandoned salt cavern, with plans to use it to store liquified propane gas underground. The problem: even the company acknowledged that the cavern may have leaks, risking the health of Seneca Lake and nearby residents.
“It started with three people sitting around a kitchen table saying, ‘somebody has got to do something about this. Who’s doing something about this?’” Yvonne said. “And it turned out it would have to be us.”
Yvonne’s connection to Seneca Lake goes back seven generations. She learned to swim in its waters before she even learned to walk. Now, as a full-time speech-language therapist, Yvonne works for young people with disabilities in the community that has always been her home. More recently though, she has become one of Seneca Lake’s fiercest advocates.
She didn’t seek to become an environmental activist. Environmental activism found her.
This is why Yvonne refers to herself as an “accidental activist.”
In a “true David and Goliath battle” against the oil company, she rallied locals, businesses, and even former Governor Andrew Cuomo against the project. Eight years of activism helped bring the project to a halt.
But, Yvonne didn’t rest. She knew that there would be more threats to the “Heart of the Finger Lakes.”
And so she continued to organize, transitioning Gas Free Seneca to Seneca Lake Guardian and making it a local affiliate of the national Waterkeeper Alliance. This connected Gas Free Seneca to a larger and faster-growing nonprofit focused on clean water nationally, helping her build up the organization and expands its mission.
All of this led Yvonne to the current fight against Greenidge’s Bitcoin mining facility. This mining facility, located on the shores of Seneca Lake, was supposed to supply extra power for the NY electrical grid for New Yorkers. But in 2020, instead of selling electricity onto the local electrical grid, Greenidge installed thousands of Bitcoin mining machines, hoping to turn that electricity into virtual currency.
Yvonne stressed that she’s not anti-cryptocurrency, she just wants it to be more environmentally conscious. She stresses Bitcoin should adopt a different mining model. Some new cryptocurrencies use less computationally intensive mining practices that can reduce energy demand by 99.9%. At Greenidge, that could substantially lower greenhouse gas emissions. If you want to know more about the specifics of the different mining strategies, Blockgeeks has a helpful video explaining the difference here.
Transitioning the less computationally intense mining would be a huge improvement. Once Greenidge installs the remaining machines, it will produce nearly 1 million tons of CO2 per year powering them. New York’s ambitious climate plan directs the state to reduce all of its greenhouse gas emissions to at least 35.43 million tons per year by 2050. This Bitcoin mining facility and the nearly 30 potential others in upstate NY alone could tank NY’s climate goals.
It’s not just cryptocurrency’s carbon footprint that Yvonne and other locals are worried about. Greenidge also poses a threat to aquatic life in the lake. The power plant depends on Seneca Lake for cooling water, but it lacks the filters needed to keep aquatic life out of the plant. As Yvonne puts it, “it’s acting like a giant fish blender.” There are also noise pollution and electronic waste concerns if this facility expands. These problems would only get worse in different communities if more facilities were to be built.
Yvonne Taylor in front of NY DEC, Kelly Marciniak.
What is happening at Seneca Lake has implications that go far beyond this one natural-gas power plant.
Yvonne has been working hard to stop this facility so that those other 30 power plants cannot follow the Greenidge model. She’s attended public hearings, reached out to NY Senators Gillibrand and Schumer, and created networks across the country, to advance this fight. She even rescheduled our initial interview because she was called to testify on cryptocurrency in front of the New York State Assembly.
Her immediate goal is to stop Greenidge from getting a required air pollution permit renewed, but her broader goal is a statewide temporary ban on Bitcoin mining pending a complete study of its environmental impacts. Yvonne calls it the top environmental issue facing NY.
Greenidge knows she’s a threat. The company sent its first intimidation letter in June 2021. When she didn’t stop after the first, it sent her another, threatening to sue her if she continued to speak out.
This type of SLAPP Suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) isn’t uncommon. Corporations will file lawsuits against groups or activists they deem a threat. Yvonne felt intimidated and scared for her family’s and her own safety. But, she “already poked the bear” and feels it is her duty to continue speaking out.
Yvonne Taylor in front of DEC, Kelly Marciniak.
This issue is deeply personal to Yvonne. It’s bigger than her. It’s for the next generation.
“I’m a school teacher. I spend my days trying to help young people become successful,” she explained. “But, what’s the point of that if they won’t have a liveable planet in their future?”
Yvonne wants to connect with people of all ages, especially young people to educate them on the environmental problems caused by Bitcoin mining. She also wants to expand on the network she’s established so that it’s not just a town-by-town fight, especially as Greenidge seeks to open an identical facility in South Carolina.
As Yvonne sees it, if Greenidge gets its air permit renewed for Seneca Lake, it sends the message that this model is viable. But if they’re unsuccessful, it could stop many other copycat projects.
It’s a precedent-setting case and a lot of pressure for a grassroots organizer. When Yvonne looks at the road ahead, she thinks back to the youth she works with.
“I don’t have children, they’re my children and I will fight tooth and nail to provide a liveable place for my kids in the future.”