SHERIDAN – After more than 40 years of sitting idle, the fate of the Acme power plant lies in the hands of community members; and the effort to clean up the area starts now.
The Sheridan County Conservation District officially bought the old power plant June 29 with the goal to clean up and decontaminate the hazardous run-down building and grounds.
SCCD together with the Sheridan Community Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy will conduct a community visioning session for the plant Thursday to discuss the site’s history and ideas for the site’s reclamation and future use.
SCCD plans on participating in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program, which assists in the expansion, redevelopment or reuse of a property where a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant may be present.
SCCD district manager Carrie Rogaczewski said while it’s especially important for those in the Acme area to attend the visioning session, it could also be an important discussion for the broader community.
This will be the first of many visioning sessions for the power plant. Rogaczewski said no idea is off the table. While SCCD will entertain ideas that include keeping and tearing down the building, Rogaczewski said much of that will depend on how safe the structure is.
“No decisions have been made on what the future of the building is,” Rogaczewski said, adding that the reality will depend on the structural integrity of the building and what has to be remediated.
Rogaczewski said the most recent rounds of environmental assessments are in draft form, with more clear and specific assessments to follow.
“There will be a period still of working through what contaminants and what levels of contamination we need to deal with and how to best go about doing that,” Rogaczewski said.
The results of these assessments, along with the community’s vision for the site, will dictate what kind of funding will be needed.
According to the Wyoming State Historical Society, the coal-fired electric power plant in Acme was completed in 1910 and was one of the most advanced power plants in the West.
It provided power for the mines, coal camps, Fort Mackenzie, Sheridan and the streetcar system.
Thunder Mountain Tours owner Mike Kuzara lived in Acme in the late 1940s. Kuzara’s father was a machinist at the power plant and was killed there when a valve he was repairing blew up after it had been inaccurately tagged as turned off.
Kuzara said he thinks it’s the only fatality that occurred at the plant.
How Kuzara remembers it, Acme was an ideal place to live, complete with sturdy homes and land to recreate.
“It was pretty darn nice, (with) cottonwood trees and everyone had the river right there by their house,” Kuzara said.
He said the power plant even generated warm, clean water that flowed into a section of the Tongue River, creating its own ecosystem.
“They had fish in there that only existed in tropical areas,” Kuzara said. “There were all kinds of marine life that wouldn’t have existed anywhere else except that there was a constant supply of good clean warm water that came out of that power plant.”
According to “Black Diamonds of Sheridan,” the Acme mine continued to operate under the Sheridan-Wyoming Coal Company until 1940, after which only the Monarch mine was in operation. The loss of employment led to workers moving to coal fields in Utah and other parts of Wyoming.
In 1953 the Sheridan-Wyoming Coal Company sold the coal camp in Acme except for the Montana-Dakota Power plant, which eventually shut down in 1976.
Kuzara said at the time, Sheridan was growing at a faster rate than the plant could handle. Hydroelectric power from the Yellowtail Dam, he said, was also much less expensive.
“It was kind of sad they had to shut that little plant down, but you know, if they want to call that progress I guess that’s OK,” Kuzara said.
In 1977, Big Horn Coal Company purchased the camp and evicted the residents that still lived there.
“It’s a shame that the town of Acme had to be upended,” Kuzara said. “…That’s an alluvial valley, that’s where the Tongue River and Goose Creek meet, and the idea that they were going to mine a place like that was absolutely ridiculous.”
Newspaper articles in the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library’s The Wyoming Room show the power plant changed hands multiple times in the 1980s and 1990s, each time generating hope that something would be done with it.
While Rogaczewski said she doesn’t know why previous efforts fell through, she said since SCCD is a government entity, it opens up funding possibilities for which private individuals or companies aren’t eligible.
Former Sheridan Community Land Trust executive director Colin Betzler said it’s been a process to track down different people who had ownership or some stake in the power plant over the last 20 years to start discussions about the future of the plant.
“We wanted to make sure we were working with the individuals,” Betzler said. “We weren’t there as a threat, we weren’t there taking anything, we were there giving them some value for something that largely was just sort of sitting dormant with people who didn’t’ really have any game plan what the next steps might be.”
Betzler said the Acme power plant is probably one of the only potentially hazardous sites along the Tongue River in Wyoming left to clean up. He said it’s going to be a long process, but it’s one that’s starting now.
“I think the conservation district is really excited to start the community conversation about what might happen there and what the community wants to see there,” Betzler said. “The good news is that it’s not a piece of property that gets kicked down the road another decade or two; it’s something we get to address now.”