Crozet’s Former Acme Site: A Long Road to Redemption

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A late-1950s aerial view of Acme Visible Records on Route 240 in Crozet, the wastewater “lagoon” visible behind the main plant building.

Wending westward toward Crozet on Route 240, passers-by may notice a desolate stretch of road off to the south. Tucked between modern houses and a microbrewery sits a weedy, mostly empty 62-acre tract, bounded by a chain link fence hung with Keep Out signs, a brooding curiosity amid the otherwise bucolic landscape. While Crozet newcomers may wonder about the land’s past and its prospects, long-time residents know it as the former Acme Visible Records site, currently in its fifteenth year of environmental cleanup. 

Bill Schrader, who has lived since 2003 in Stonegate, the site’s closest eastern neighbor, says he first became aware of Acme’s issues when he spotted people wading through an unnamed creek behind his house shortly after he and his wife moved in. “I asked them what they were doing, and they told me they have to walk that creek once a quarter, to check the water in several locations.” Schrader has since become his neighborhood’s contact for the project, passing along news and updates from Acme’s parent company, Wilson Jones, to fellow residents. “They do a good job keeping us informed, but the project is taking quite a long time.”

A manufacturer of file cabinets, desks, and bookcases, Acme Visible Records opened in Crozet in 1954 and operated continuously until 2001, employing hundreds of townspeople in a 220,000 square foot facility on the property. A “visible record” is a filing system of overlapping cards fixed in shallow drawers, and Acme was a leading innovator of such systems during the pre-computer era.

A vintage flat filing cabinet of the type produced by Acme Visible Records in Crozet.

Acme’s wastewater practices came to the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency under a federal regulatory program called the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which requires that solid and hazardous waste be properly managed across the country. In its finishing process for the filing cabinets, Acme used solvents to prepare the metal for painting, and the leftover solvents and stripping rinse wastewaters were sent to a treatment “lagoon” on the south side of the property. 

Inspections of the property revealed that both the lagoon and an area of soil and groundwater under the main paint building contained chemicals such as arsenic, barium, benzene, lead, naphthalene, and vinyl chloride, and Acme’s long road to remediation began.

“The main area being addressed out there is underneath and next to the footprint of the former manufacturing building,” said Ryan Kelly, corrective action project manager for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). “We can’t really trace it back to a specific incident or accident, but it was probably a spill that was not cleaned up immediately or a situation where a piece of equipment was leaking into the ground. Sometimes it really doesn’t take a whole lot.”

Environmental remediation is rarely a quick process. Often, multiple techniques are applied, some intended as a first pass in anticipation of a second or third phase, some tried in tandem with others for a combined effect. For Acme, the cleanup has been executed in waves, including a full five years (2006-10) spent investigating the facility. The first remediation step was an interim one, designed to stabilize the site’s condition and prevent the spread of human and environmental threats.

“The first process was a soil vapor extraction, which used granular activated carbon to treat the soil directly under the building,” said Kelly. “Along with that was a biological groundwater treatment, sort of like adding bacteria or bugs to degrade the contaminants in the aquifer. These two techniques had limited success, so they then switched to a bit more aggressive technique.” The site work is being done by environmental consulting firm Atlanta Environmental Management. 

The “more aggressive” method involved excavating the affected dirt, hauling it offsite to an out-of-state facility, and filling in clean dirt, a process which is now complete. “As of June 1, 2019, all soil remediation efforts for the site have been completed to industrial cleanup standards,” said Wilson Jones spokesperson Sarah Huddle. The next (perhaps final) step is groundwater remediation, for which a “corrective action final decision” by the DEQ is expected later this year.

“They’ll work to knock down the concentrations in the groundwater, and over time it will continue to attenuate naturally,” said Kelly, “but there are too many unknowns to say when they’ll be able to achieve the standards.”

Thirty-year Crozet resident Tim Tolson has followed the site’s progress across the decades. “In the early meetings they were talking about being done in five years. It seems as if the DEQ has moved the goalposts a couple of times to say, ‘no, we’re not done.’” As recently as 2013, when the main manufacturing building on the site was demolished to more easily access the soil and groundwater, Wilson Jones expected work to be done and the property, currently zoned for light industrial use, to go on the market by 2016.

Tim Tolson. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Though the land will not be remediated to a level that would allow for residential development, a potential buyer could apply to the county for heavy industrial use. Tolson suggested that one of Crozet’s historic and iconic features—the railroad line running through it—could be well-utilized by an industrial enterprise. “They could use that railroad to ship out their product,” said Tolson. “That’s why it runs through there. There’s actually a siding that runs behind the Starr Hill building to a concrete pad behind Acme.” 

Schrader said Stonegate residents, many of them seniors, await the land’s next use with a bit of apprehension. “We’re not anti-jobs or against developing the property,” he said, “just ill-at-ease not knowing what could end up there.” 

The DEQ’s Kelly said that the property could be sold and built on right now, if the owner was willing. “We don’t have any restrictions on it if they want to redevelop the site as long as it’s industrial or commercial use,” he said. “There are no limits on that currently.” Kelley added that there would likely be continued groundwater monitoring “for a long time,” to ensure that contamination levels were going down and contaminants were still contained on the site.

At the moment, Wilson Jones is not making timetable predictions. “There is no official position as of yet concerning redevelopment and/or sale of the property,” said Huddle. 

The Acme property is on Route 240 between Western Ridge and MusicToday. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Likewise, the county is taking a wait-and-see position. “It would be premature to consider the employment potential of this site due to its ongoing environmental remediation,” said Johnathan Newberry, economic development coordinator for the county, who added that his office would be participating in Crozet’s upcoming Master Plan update “to better understand the community’s priorities for the site.”

Ann Mallek, White Hall District representative on the Board of Supervisors, sees lots of potential employment for the Crozet community once the cleanup is complete. “Imagine the site as the lavender color on the master plan map,” she said, “an R&D flex zone with incubator spaces, wet labs for research, and sales and office aspects where research, tech, or light industrial businesses could grow.” Mallek anticipates other benefits as well. “Hopefully the owner would agree to donate land for the right of way of Eastern Avenue to cross under the railroad. This would also improve access to the Acme land.” 

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