A community effort in Sheridan aims to reclaim some of the wreckage left behind by a previous generation of industrialists. The 5.8-acre area near the former town of Acme is a hub for outdoor enthusiasts and historians, but a dilapidated power plant building has become a nuisance riddled with environmental toxins.
The area a few miles north of Sheridan was once home to a mining town and associated underground coal mine, in addition to the Acme Power Plant. At one time, the plant generated electricity for the city of Sheridan and several other mining encampments that emerged in the early 1900s. Those coal towns are credited with significant contributions to economic and population growth in the area.
They also had adverse and sometimes lasting environmental impacts.
Executive Director of the Museum at the Bighorns Makeyla Larrow said while the plant was in operation, there were accidental explosions, exposure to noxious gasses, and the physically dangerous and demanding work of chipping coal out of a hillside by lantern light. The mules used to pull carts in and out of the underground mine shafts worked at a frenzied pace that cut their life expectancy to a handful of years, at best.
“Looking back at how things were then, you wouldn’t have thought of that power plant as an environmental hazard, to say the least,” she said. When the coal companies went under or moved on, the town of Acme was torn down, piece by piece. “Every coal community in Sheridan County was company-owned,” Larrow said. “When the company went under, those people living in those communities were given notice to get out and the companies sold everything they could. That included the houses, bricks, everything like that.”
Some of the building structures were relocated into neighborhoods in the city of Sheridan and are still inhabited today. The remnants at the historic Acme town site consist of an occasional concrete building footprint and miscellaneous scrap metal scattered around an open field, punctuated with trees planted in neat rows that outline where streets once ran. The plant, however, was too large to be moved or knocked down, and repurposing of the facility followed an unsustainable trajectory. The site transferred into private ownership split among multiple individuals and was used unofficially as a battery recycling center, and auto salvage yard and dumping ground.
“Unfortunately, those endeavors didn’t make money, and the property fell into disrepair and got passed around,” Larrow said. The aftermath is a present-day island of debris comprised of pollution, both seen and unseen, with the massive red brick plant as the centerpiece. Over time, the property came to exist as an obstacle for outdoor recreation enthusiasts utilizing nearby walk-in areas and a popular target for trespassers.
A feasibility study initiated by the Sheridan County Conservation District in February of 2015 began to uncover the extent of what it would take to clean up the area and hopefully mitigate the conspicuous undesirability of the land. From the initial information, the Acme Power Plant Reclamation Project came into being as a partnership involving multiple agencies, from the local to national level: the Sheridan County Conservation District, the Sheridan Community Land Trust, local government entities, the Padlock Ranch, the Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
SCCD District Manager Carrie Rogaczewski said the first phase of the cleanup in 2018, funded by the DEQ, involved site stabilization, which included superficial and non-technical removal 60 cubic yards of bulk asbestos insulation, boarding up the windows, a general pickup of scrap metal and debris around the yard, and hauling away 50 55-gallon drums full of unknown material. Even these rudimentary efforts significantly reduced the potential for the spread of hazardous contamination via air currents and wildlife tracking in and out of the area. From there, it was time to hunker down and begin another phase of administrative groundwork to cultivate the knowledge and funding needed to finish the job.
Results of an environmental study came back in November confirming unhealthy levels of hazards present at the site. A dangerously high amount of asbestos was found in the soil and plant building itself. Samples of the building, surface water and groundwater also proved to be contaminated with lead, arsenic and various industrial contaminants. The cooling tunnel of the plant still has a particularly high concentration of trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), both of which are recognized carcinogens. While the results of the newly released environmental study were actually not as bad as what was expected, specialized help will be needed to neutralize the site. Rogaczewski is serving as a grant writer for the project and is applying for $585,000 from the EPA for asbestos abatement as the next step forward.
“As a group, we are not sure it makes a ton of sense to clean up the ground as long as we still have asbestos migrating out of the building,” she explained, adding that for purposes of securing grant money, the project has been divided into three different zones so that additional funding may be requested when conditions for further work are appropriate. The requested grant also requires a 20% community match.
While this massive undertaking works its way through considerable administrative acrobatics, the parties of the Acme Reclamation Project are also acting as stewards of the land in day-to-day affairs, like the ever-present issue of trespassers. SCCD Chair Susan Holmes said the district has no intention of maintaining possession of the land, but for now, it’s a means to an end to get the site cleaned up so that it can be repurposed. The SCCD initially obtained ownership of the land via a quiet title action, where the land was first purchased by the Sheridan Community Land Trust and then transferred to the conservation district, intruders have been a prominent concern. A chain-link fence was constructed around the area with signage to discourage trespassing until the area could be made safe. Even so, issues continued to arise.
“They (trespassers) cut holes in our big, expensive fence,” Holmes explained. “Then, at one time, we had game cameras set up with motion detectors, and when they were triggered, we would notify the Sheriff’s Department. Deputies were able to make it out there a few times to catch some of them, but it wasn’t very long until those cameras were destroyed.”
Earlier this year, a teen on a would-be adventure fell approximately 40 feet down a coal chute and became stuck and seriously injured. Others in the group went back to notify emergency responders, who performed a successful rescue. Later, all juveniles involved in the break-in faced legal proceedings. Holmes acknowledged the injury suffered from the fall was probably punishment in and of itself, but they went forward with the charges in the interest of consistency. The bottom line is that, right now, people should stay away from the area until the cleanup project is done.
The situation at Acme is not uncommon in Wyoming. The state’s history tells a story in which some settlements stuck around and some did not. There are hundreds of skeletal warehouses and junky properties waiting for the care and attention of a concerned community. The initiative to reclaim the Acme Power Plant was inspired by a similar project near Laramie. The tipping point, it seems, is when a place like that becomes a conspicuous nuisance and is in close proximity to people with talent, vision and hearts ready to do the work of reclamation. Often, that work is taken up on behalf of long-gone industrialists.
The present-day momentum of the Acme project has given rise to a new set of questions now facing the reclamation committee: what should the future of the land look like? In the final stages of the cleanup, a decision will need to be made in terms of whether to cover the area with an asphalt cap, stabilize contaminants on-site or haul the unhealthy topsoil to another location. Possibilities for reutilization of the land include outdoor recreation (the most popular choice identified by surveys thus far), an educational/retreat space or commercial operations.
Rogaczewski said a decision will likely be made in the spring regarding the requested EPA funding. If approved, work on the site can resume next fall.