Toxic mining pollution has turned Ohio’s rivers orange. Now it’s turned into a painting.


With its rolling hills, forests, and hiking trails, Southeast Ohio is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. Yet criss-crossing the landscape are countless orange-tinged waterways, colored by the iron oxide pollution that seeped in from abandoned coal mines.

These waterways are contaminated with a toxic sludge known as acid mine drainage (AMD) – the overflow of highly acidic wastewater from underground mines, created when water comes in contact with exposed mining rocks.

The UN has described AMD as one of the most serious long-term environmental consequences of mining and it affects coal mining regions around the world, from South Africa at Great Britain. Pollution can be so toxic to fish and other creatures that it leaves some waterways devoid of aquatic life.

Rivers can be cleaned by neutralizing the acidity of AMD, but this is an expensive process. But two Ohio University professors have found a way to fund the cleanup of polluted rivers by mining iron oxide – a substance commonly used to make pigments – and turning it into artist-grade paint.

Coal was once an important part of Ohio’s economy and the state produced approximately 2.35 billion tons of its underground mines between 1800 and 2010. But before 1977, when the United States introduced the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, mines that were no longer needed were often simply abandoned.

As a result, many mines have become polluters, with AMD affecting 2,300 km of Ohio waterwaysaccording to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Guy Riefler, an environmental engineer and professor at Ohio University, has been trying to solve the problem for 15 years.

“It is truly a nuisance, a horror and an embarrassment to the people. And because it’s a poor region, it doesn’t really get the attention it deserves,” says Riefler.

Riefler came up with the idea of ​​extracting iron oxide from polluted water and turning it into color pigments, which could be sold to further fund AMD’s cleanup. But he didn’t know enough about the paintings to determine what made them a good quality.

Coincidentally, ten years ago, Ohio University art professor John Sabraw took a faculty tour of acid mine dump sites and experimented with making paint from a pot of polluted stream water – without much success.

The duo began working together to turn mined iron oxide into artist-grade paint. Their collaboration helped take the idea from an “interesting little science project” to something bigger, as Riefler developed a small-scale process to neutralize the acidity of contaminated waterways and extract the iron oxide particles – which he says is the predominant metal pollutant in Ohio. the acid mine seeps in.

“The modern artist is very good at designing solutions to problems,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come to a roadblock and bounced it off John…he found something I hadn’t thought of and just took us to the next level.”

In 2018, alongside local associations Rural Action, they teamed up with the painting company Gamblin to create a limited series of 500 oil paintings. They were given away as rewards to supporters of the Kickstarter campaign that funded their research-scale pilot installation. Name it “Salvaged Earth Colors“, the paints were popular among artists, Sabraw says, allowing them to incorporate an eco-friendly aspect into their work.

Through their social enterprise called real pigmentsthey are now testing their cleanup model by building their first full-scale treatment facility, which is expected to be operational in 2024. It will be located at the Truetown Landfill at the Sunday Creek Watershed, a site in southeast Ohio . heavily impacted by AMD, according to Riefler.

A volunteer collects leaking acid mine drainage in Sunday Creek in Truetown, Ohio on October 22, 2021.

“Every minute, 1,000 gallons of water come out of this abandoned mine. It contains a lot of iron and is acidic,” says Michelle Shively MacIver, Project Development Manager at True Pigments. “Very little life can live in an area which looks like this.”

Once the processing facility is operational, True Pigments aims to extract approximately 2 million pounds of iron oxide per year and clean up seven miles of waterways – from Sunday Creek to the opening of Hocking River – according to MacIver.

A previous Rural Action AMD remediation project that neutralized the acidity of creek water on the West Branch of Sunday Creek saw 17 native fish species return after two years, according to the NGO. True Pigments is confident that its installation will lead to a similar result in the Sunday Creek watershed.

“Our hope is that once the chemistry is fixed there, they (the fish) will continue to swim upstream. It will be good for the whole watershed,” MacIver says.

True Pigments isn’t the first to extract iron oxide pigments from pollution. The AboutOxide Pigment line has been made from AMD in nearby Pennsylvania for two decades, but Riefler says True Pigments uses a different method that takes up less space and is better suited to Truetown conditions.

True Pigments has received funding from a number of donors, including the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), which provided the project with $3.5 million through its federal agency. Abandoned Mining Lands Reclamation Program. The money will go towards the first phase of construction of the processing facility.

Ben McCament, manager of the abandoned mining lands program at ODNR, says that between 1999 and 2018, the department spent about $32 million on 67 projects to treat AMD. “It’s an expensive problem,” McCament told CNN. “I think that has always been one of the main challenges. Every site is unique, every site is challenging, and it takes long-term funding to address it. »

By funding True Pigments, the ODNR hopes to illustrate that through a public-private venture, “we can create a product from these waste streams and then also solve an environmental problem and reclaim and improve water quality. who was affected by AMD for a long time”. time,” McCament says.

As well as helping the environment, the hope is that the Truetown facility will provide jobs for the local community and create a supply of iron oxide for other uses, such as the construction industry, where it is used in bricks, colored concrete and tiles.

McCament thinks True Pigments’ model could potentially be a solution for AMD sites in the United States, as long as they have “the right conditions that would make this particular approach feasible, sustainable, and economical.”

Riefler echoes that sentiment. “With a little more work, it could be adapted to a lot of different places,” he says. “So it’s a first step, and it’s a big step. This is promising for pollution worldwide.

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