Wyoming coal community has a chance to save itself from economic ruin, but small-town struggles stand in its way

Nicole Pollack with the Casper Star-Tribune, via the Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER – The city of Kemmerer, Wyoming, feels a sense of pride for its tough little wastewater treatment plant. For 42 years, the plant has quietly serviced hundreds of homes. 

It’s chugged through economic booms that stretched it to capacity and busts that forced many residents to move out. Under the care of the same operator for the last three decades, it’s lived twice as long as intended. 

But the community is poised to outgrow the plant for good. 

The 3,300 people who rely on it today are about all its aging machinery can handle, said Brent McClarnon, superintendent of the Kemmerer/Diamondville Water and Wastewater Joint Powers Board. 

“The pumps and everything right now are running 24/7, because we have no redundancy,” he said. “If one of those 42-year-old pumps goes out, we’re in big trouble.” 

At most, McClarnon figures, the plant might be able to squeeze in another 1,500 people, so long as crews continue to add room by finding and repairing leaks where groundwater enters the system. 

“We just do a lot of Band-Aids,” he said. 

What Kemmerer and the adjacent town of Diamondville really need is a new wastewater treatment plant. 

Building one, however, will cost the secluded community at least $40 million or $50 million — an unworkable price tag that comes out to roughly $18,000 per adult. 

McClarnon’s previous employer, an Indiana city of almost 25,000 people, used its tax revenue to cover such costs. Kemmerer doesn’t have the same ability. 

A big part of his job now is figuring out what to do about that. 

Complicating things for the Joint Powers Board is the fact that the population could grow by thousands over the next several years. 

If the advanced nuclear reactor proposed for Kemmerer remains on schedule, it alone could bring in enough temporary construction workers to overwhelm the existing wastewater infrastructure by 2025. 

Local leaders tried, unsuccessfully, to secure some of the funding they needed from the nearly $1 billion allocated to Wyoming by the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Then, with few options and time running out, they figured out how to pay an engineering firm $120,000 for a preliminary analysis without any external financial support. 

“These projects don’t just happen overnight,” McClarnon said. “That’s the scary portion for us. We’ve got to get something going.” 

If everything goes perfectly — if the plans are finalized quickly and the permits are approved and the money comes through on time — the plant could be completed around the start of 2025. 

Lincoln County hired a couple of grant writers to help the process along. 

With few current leads, though, McClarnon is already questioning what will happen if the tight timeline doesn’t go according to plan. 

“We don’t want to be the problem for a $4 billion project because we can’t come up with $50 million,” he said. 

The Joint Powers Board isn’t alone. 

Strapped for resources, painfully aware this could be its last shot at survival, Kemmerer is doing all it can to patch the holes in time. It’s praying that’ll be enough. 

Kemmerer’s reliance on coal — and, later, oil and gas — has been a source of anxiety for as long as many people can remember.’

Lincoln County Treasurer Jerry Greenfield said he’s been looking for ways to bring more stability to the southwestern Wyoming economy since he moved to the area in 1975. 

The urgency inched slowly upward until 2019, when Rocky Mountain Power, the utility that owns the nearby Naughton Power Plant, decided to stop burning coal there by 2025 — threatening hundreds of jobs at the plant and the mine that feeds it several years earlier than anticipated. 

Suddenly, the outlook was dire. 

If Kemmerer were to lose both the plant and the mine, Greenfield said, “pretty soon, you’ve got a county seat in a ghost town.” 

Local officials threw themselves, with fresh gusto, behind efforts to attract new businesses. 

Greenfield’s goal became to “just do whatever I needed to do to get somebody’s attention so that they would work with us.”

It proved an uphill battle for Kemmerer, one of countless unknown, isolated coal towns trying desperately to find a way to hang on in a country moving quickly away from the fuel that sustained them. 

Then, in the middle of 2021, Rocky Mountain Power and a nuclear developer from Washington State offered Kemmerer something close to a miracle — if it could beat out the three other distressed Wyoming coal communities vying for the same flagship project. 

“We don’t have funding to schmooze people,” said Bill Thek, a longtime Kemmerer resident and retired police officer who was elected mayor in 2020. 

Instead, Kemmerer and Diamondville launched a letter-writing campaign. And turned to neighboring towns, including several across the nearby borders of Utah and Idaho, for help. 

“We got support from every single one of those,” Thek said. “We got support from our state legislators. We got support from our national legislators.” 

He believes it was the outpouring of enthusiasm that gave Kemmerer an edge over its competition. 

Rep. Scott Heiner, R-Green River, spent about six years in Kemmerer before settling on the nearby ranch where he’s lived for decades. The retired oil and gas engineer decided to run for the state House of Representatives in 2020 partly, he said, because “Kemmerer’s future did not look very bright at the time.” 

His elected position “opened up a lot of doors” and helped him to promote Kemmerer “as a great place to do business,” he said. 

The nuclear company, TerraPower, declared Kemmerer the winner last November. 

Now it’s racing to construct a 345-megawatt demonstration reactor — about half Naughton’s capacity — at the power plant site, where it’s promised to retrain the workers who choose to stay. 

The company is aiming for a short transition; Congress, which authorized half its funding, wants the reactor operational by 2028. 

“I think our project creates a bunch of opportunities for the city, and the state, even, to start to build a clean energy ecosystem around the project,” said TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque. “We just try to support it however we can.” 

For Kemmerer, like for TerraPower, “it’s all about overcoming speed bumps,” he said. 

The nuclear project transformed Kemmerer almost overnight from an outlier into a destination. 

A year in, city leaders have tossed their recruitment strategies out the window. They can barely stay on top of the interest being directed at them. 

“We’ve become a magnet,” Greenfield said. “Everybody wants to come here.” 

The inquiries are pouring in from across the country and from every facet of the economy. 

“I could spend all of my time, all of it, just talking with people about all the economic development opportunities in the community,” said Brian Muir, Kemmerer’s city administrator. “I just don’t have that much time.” 

The prospect of nuclear power has attracted auxiliary companies hoping to claim a spot in the emerging supply chain and developers eager to furnish newcomers with houses, hotels, stores, parks and restaurants. 

“We like the growth,” Muir said. “We also need to make sure we can keep up with it.” 

The challenge, for Muir and just about everyone else making decisions in Kemmerer, is finding a balance in the midst of the unknowns. 

Housing prices will skyrocket if there’s too few homes available but tank if there are too many. 

Businesses that are out of sync with their customers could be overwhelmed or forced to shutter. 

Even the size of the wastewater treatment plant must be optimized, McClarnon said it’ll run poorly if it’s overbuilt. 

Many of the companies interested in relocating to Kemmerer are relatively small. But a few with bigger ambitions have started snapping up properties around town. 

One of them, Rain Fire, plans to move its existing firefighting operations from California and use part of the Kemmerer Municipal Airport to send fire trucks, equipment and helicopters to combat wildfires anywhere in the West. 

It expects to hire 150 people next year and grow to a full-time staff of 450 by 2026. “

“We’re excited to be part of the community,” said David Jackson, executive director and fire chief at Rain Fire. “It seems like the right place to be.” 

Jackson is also involved with developer Canyon Road Holdings, which has already broken ground on some of the close to 3,000 housing units it plans to build for Rain Fire employees and their families, for the influx of temporary workers other endeavors are expected to draw in the coming years and for the undetermined number of new residents who will eventually follow. 

That sort of interest is soaring “not because the state is investing in their efforts,” Heiner said, “but because they see the growth potential of that community. So it kind of feeds upon itself.” 

The U.S. Department of Energy has begun to paint Kemmerer’s budding transformation as a model for other towns faced with a similar plight. Coal communities nationwide are watching it closely, willing it to succeed as their own economies flounder. 

Though TerraPower must still clear a number of regulatory hurdles before it can install a reactor in Kemmerer, it announced in October that it will study building up to five more in the region by 2035, stoking optimism throughout coal country that nuclear power really could be a silver bullet. 

“What’s happening in southwest Wyoming will eventually spill over into all areas of the state,” Heiner said. “If this succeeds well, then they’ll start a domino effect.” 

But its power plant isn’t the only thing Kemmerer hopes to save. 

Days after TerraPower revealed its pick last year, Thek, the mayor, told the Star-Tribune that Kemmerer still was — and would remain — a coal town. 

The Kemmerer Mine employed more people than the power plant. Officials’ next priority would be saving those jobs, too. That hasn’t changed. 

“It’s great that we got the nuclear plant,” Muir said, “but the real bottom line for knowing if we’re going to have significant growth is what is going to happen to the coal industry here.” 

Two prospective buyers have emerged, publicly, for Kemmerer’s coal. 

Glenrock Energy and Kanata Clean Power want to convert it, jointly, into low-carbon ammonia. TriSight aims to revolutionize agricultural fertilizer and high-end skincare. 

At its peak, the Naughton plant burned approximately 2.8 million tons of Kemmerer Mine coal annually, according to federal data. Since its largest unit was converted to natural gas in 2019, Naughton’s coal consumption has fallen by half. 

The mine’s total output has followed a similar trend. It peaked above 5 million tons in 2008, then declined to about 2.5 million tons by 2021. 

Combined, Glenrock Energy and TriSight say they’ll be able to buy as much coal as the mine currently produces once they finish scaling up. Each company is targeting over a million tons per year. 

The ammonia facility, Kemmerer Decarbonization Works, will cost an estimated $2.7 billion, said Matthew Coeny, Glenrock Energy’s managing director of finance. 

It’s on track for a partial opening around 2027. 

At full capacity, it’ll require roughly 200-300 workers to convert coal into a gas, refine that gas into hydrogen and add nitrogen to make ammonia, while capturing the carbon emitted in the process and storing it underground. 

Glenrock Energy’s goal, Coeny said, is “essentially replacing the Naughton generation station as an anchor customer of the Kemmerer Mine.” The company intends to ship its ammonia wherever there’s demand — including, it hopes, to Japan and several other countries considering retrofitting coal plants to burn the fuel in order to meet their climate goals. 

And its ambitions, like TerraPower’s, extend beyond the Kemmerer Mine. 

“We’re very, very committed to the Kemmerer site,” Coeny said. “But it should be said that this model, using Wyoming coal to produce ammonia, that’s something that should be done at multiple sites throughout the state.” 

Ammonia is already made, without carbon capture, primarily for use in fertilizers. 

A low-carbon alternative has gained momentum more recently as part of a broader effort to switch to hydrogen, which “is in the very early stages of development — very early,” said Holly Krutka, executive director of the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources. It also has potential, she added, to power other hard-to-decarbonize sectors, like maritime shipping.

“None of those things are happening today,” Krutka said. “They’re in process, they’re in testing. So it’ll be a while before that low-carbon ammonia economy or industry really gets going, but there’s existing markets that ammonia could serve.” 

TriSight, meanwhile, is eyeing the substances found in coal, not the hydrocarbons. 

“The more I’ve learned about coal,” said Brad Barham, TriSight’s president, “it is literally a treasure chest.” 

The company is working to extract humic and fulvic acid, both of which are found naturally in soil, and commercialize them first in an alternative fertilizer that’s effective at low volumes and then through a skincare line. 

“Guess what that world’s now looking for? Fulvic acid products,” Barham said. “One product is an antioxidant, it’s an anti-aging, it’s anti-wrinkles.” 

He thinks his coal-derived formula can quickly fill that niche. 

The plan, he said, is to take the fertilizer commercial next year, launch the skincare in Kemmerer in 2024 and expand to include synthetic graphite and other carbon products by 2027, at a cost in the ballpark of $200 million. 

If that all works out, the company could start off supplying a few dozen jobs and then grow to more than 1,000. It’s still early days for both coal proposals, though. 

“We’re excited that people are interested in it, but they have a lot of things they need to do,” Muir said. “These are new markets, new products and new technologies.” 

For Glenrock Energy, TriSight or any other company to access the many millions of tons of coal left at Kemmerer Mine, U.S. Route 30 will have to be moved out of the way, at an estimated cost of $30 million. The state will cover part of it. But the mine is reluctant to fork over its half of the cash until it can be more confident the investment will pay off. Its employees, newly hopeful, are holding their breath. 

“All of these opportunities, you get excited about them,” Heiner, the state representative, said. “Out of 10, you may only see a few of them come to fruition. But you’ve got to get excited every time.” 

The prospects, after all the years spent scraping by, are overwhelming. 

“Once we got the snowball rolling, sometimes the snowball grows faster than you expected,” Heiner said. “That’s all part of the business of bringing industry to the state. We’ve got to be ready to receive it.” 

The community has already taken the most important step, he said. It’s embraced nuclear power. 

“Some people want the diversity, but they’re saying, ‘Not in my backyard. Bring in new industry, but not here where I live,’” he said. “These people, in this part of the state, are saying, ‘Bring it here. I live here, put it in my backyard, because I believe in it.’” 

The local leaders doing their best to adapt to life at the forefront of the energy transition are unanimous on one thing: Kemmerer is doing everything it can. And it will almost certainly need more help from the state to get there. 

“We still have a city to operate, and that’s been super challenging at times,” Thek said. “This has impacted my personal life so much, it’s unbelievable.” 

As that city builds toward prosperity, its foundations threatening to come undone, a new era for Kemmerer, for Wyoming and for the rest of coal country hovers just beyond its grasp. It’s hoping someone will offer a hand.


This story was published on Dec. 5, 2022.


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