SHERIDAN — Sheridan County Conservation District District Manager Carrie Rogaczewski updated the public about the ongoing Acme Power Plant project Feb. 6 — what she said project coordinators lovingly refer to as an “island of debris in an otherwise open space.”
Rogaczewski assured meeting attendees that even if it seems work has stalled on the project, Acme Working Group partners are still working hard. The project’s complexity and size has been a major impediment to speed on the project. Site assessments are among the top project priorities for 2020.
The former coal-fired plant was clean and well-maintained in its early years but took a sharp downturn when it closed in 1976. The site became a prime location for auto salvaging, battery recycling and general dumping.
Site assessments in 2017 revealed contaminants including asbestos, lead, PCBs and mold, in addition to debris and generally hazardous conditions, Rogaczewski said.
The project is unlike anything SCCD has taken on before but the organization is the only one that qualified for project grants, and it aligned with their mission to protect Sheridan County’s land and water quality, she said.
So far, the Acme Working Group has invested $750,000 in the site, 80% of which came through state and federal program funding — three-quarters went toward activities like stabilization and assessments, while about 5% supported project coordination, administration and fundraising.
Back in 2017, the AWG developed four essential points of focus for the project: improve wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities; protect water and land quality; ensure public access and capture historical importance.
Community input from 2017 identified community strengths, redevelopment ideas and threats including contamination, funding and accessibility.
Rogaczewski said they have primarily focused on addressing contamination and accessibility since those meetings.
For site stabilization projects, 50 55-gallon drums with unidentified contents were removed and sent to a disposal facility. The drums were determined to be the most pressing contamination threat due to their proximity to the river, Rogaczewski said. About 60 cubic yards of asbestos-containing materials and three truckloads of empty containers were also removed.
Rogaczewski said there is still a significant amount of general debris, tires and asbestos. The SCCD has focused on site assessments, security, maintenance, documentation and general property management since the organization took ownership of the property in June 2017.
Reducing trespassing has been an ongoing issue in recent months, as well as improving the access road to be a more stable mode of transportation for project participants and less of a mud-bogging opportunity for locals, Rogaczewski said.
Trespassing not only presents a safety risk for trespassers because of the condition of the site, but also to the surrounding area by spreading contaminants off site when people leave, tracking soil in their shoes and tires. Rogaczewski anticipates clean-up will begin sometime around 2025.
“It was important for us to be a good neighbor as well,” she said.
Engineer Loren Ruttinger with WWC Engineering sampled surface soil, groundwater, surface water, sub-surface soil and river sediment at the site and along the Tongue River.
Engineers checked for asbestos in soil through raking and weed whacking — activities most representative of activities that will be taking place on the site in the future — to determine the exposure and cancer risk to project employees and volunteers, he said.
Exposure was low during low-impact activities like walking, but increased during activities that kicked up dust and moved soil around, Ruttinger said. Surface soil samples showed the bulk of the site’s contaminants.
PCBs (synthetic oils), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are released from burning coal, oil, gasoline and other substances, and metals like lead, iron and thallium appeared more often as exceeding acceptable levels than other tests.
Eight of 10 wells showed exceeding levels of metals in groundwater, though the test could reflect a naturally high concentration of iron and manganese, Ruttinger said. The team will continue using samples to compare and determine a baseline water sample.
Humans are regularly exposed to lead, iron thallium and manganese in small doses through food and water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But each can be damaging to the nervous system and respiratory system, plants, air and water quality due to high-level exposure.
High levels of lead over a short period can lead to lead poisoning and extended exposure increases the likelihood of experiencing high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, reduced fertility and cancer.
The human body regularly consumes iron in foods and is the component of blood that transports oxygen throughout the bloodstream — though high levels can have damaging effects on human health, plants, air and water quality.
Coal-burning power plants release thallium into the air during operations, according to the CDC Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Consuming thallium-contaminated water or food in large amounts can affect the nervous system over a short period. Manganese is a manufactural byproduct used in batteries, fireworks, fertilizer and other products, as well as in low levels in foods and nutritional supplements.
Surface water samples from downstream and upstream of the Acme site were identical, indicating minimal impact on surface water from the plant itself, Ruttinger said. Some river samples showed only high metal quantities, while others showed petroleum, semi-volatile organic compounds, pesticides, PCBs and PAHs — most at the mouth of the old cooling tunnel on the plant site.
Ruttinger said next steps include completing the two remaining quarters of groundwater and surface water sampling, an ecological risk assessment, remedial alternatives evaluation report and final report. By the end of 2020 or beginning of 2021, Ruttinger anticipates they will be ready for another public meeting to discuss the results of the working group’s efforts.
Ben Luckey with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality said they are maintaining some flexibility for public input and taking a long view of remediation to ensure actions have longevity. Luckey aims to keep momentum on the project going forward thoughtfully and thoroughly, so the site doesn’t become another massive undertaking in the future, he said.
Today, the Acme Working Group includes:
• The Nature Conservancy
• Sheridan Community Land Trust
• Sheridan County Conservation District
• Padlock Ranch
• Wyoming Game and Fish Department
• Sheridan Travel and Tourism
• Sheridan County Commission
• Sheridan County Historical Society and Museum
• Montana-Dakota Utilities Co.