Repurposing Pollution

Photo provided by John Sarbaw

Photo provided by John Sarbaw

Rachael Beardsley

Within the forests of rural Appalachia, the creeks flow a neon orange. The colored water is a sign of poison—seepage from old coal mines that ruins water quality and drives out wildlife. But now, thanks to an engineer, an artist and local nonprofit Rural Action, Appalachia’s orange plague is being turned into a tool to create real beauty.

The Corning Paint Pigment Pilot Project, recently constructed in the village of Corning, about half an hour north of Athens, Ohio, is just the first step in a new form of acid mine drainage treatment that creates paint pigment from the pollution and returns clean water to the streams. The plan is to use the profits from the paint pigments to fund further cleaning efforts.

“This technology has kind of turned our view of treatment upside down because in traditional acid mine drainage treatment, the iron that is pulled out of the water is really considered a waste product,” says Michelle Shively, Sunday Creek Watershed coordinator for Rural Action and co-creator of the project. “Now, with this technology, it’s a product, it’s a commodity, it’s something that has value. It can actually be used to pay for more reclamation and more treatment.”

Acid mine drainage is the resulting runoff from a chemical reaction between water and sulfur-bearing minerals such as pyrite. Past coal mining activities exposed rocks that contain pyrite, which then react with air and water to form sulfuric acid and dissolved iron. When the iron precipitates, it becomes the orange matter associated with acid mine drainage.

Because coal mines were designed to avoid water accumulation, the polluted water drains out of the mines and into the streams, disrupting the life cycle of plants and animals, corroding bridges and contaminating drinking water.

Dr. Guy Riefler, the civil engineering professor behind the project, says he’s been working on the area’s acid mine drainage problem since he moved to Athens 20 years ago. He says he was inspired to create the treatment process by others who had already produced paint pigment from acid mine drainage, though past projects never attempted reclamation.

“My contribution is really the water treatment side—catching acid mine drainage as it exits the mine and treating it immediately to produce clean water and iron sludge for processing and sale,” he says. “I was driven in this direction because of two horrendous seeps on Sunday Creek very close to OU that had no good options for treatment. The whole process was developed to treat those sites, though now it could be used at hundreds of other sites also.”

At the facility in Corning, polluted water is taken into the plant, where the acid in the water is neutralized. The iron oxide then separates from the water, collecting at the bottom of the holding container. Next, the clean water is returned to the stream, and the iron oxide is dried and ground into pigment.

The Corning facility is not focused on the impact on water quality, but is simply testing the process for future implementation. Shively says the test facility only grabs a small amount of the discharge, not enough to make a difference in the stream. At full scale, however, she says they would be grabbing all of the discharge and treating all of the water.

“The sites that we’re looking at treating, primarily the issues are the [acidity] and the iron, so we’ll be solving both of those problems and putting clean water back into the streams,” she says. “Our goal is to have 90 to 95 percent of the iron removed from the water.”

The plan, Shively says, is to build the full scale facility in Truetown, Ohio, around the halfway point between Corning and Athens. Truetown and Corning have similar water flow rates, but Truetown has 10 times the iron. Therefore, Shively says, it is the best place for a full scale business because it can make the most product. Corning may be a possible place to return to as an expansion site, she adds.

John Sabraw, an art professor at Ohio University and the third co-creator of the project, negotiated a deal to sell the product through Gamblin Artists’ Colors, a company based in Portland, Oregon, that is known for supporting sustainable art. Although the paint isn’t being sold yet, Gamblin made 500 tubes that were donated to those who helped finance the project as well as the local community and schools.

For full scale production, Riefler says they will be looking for a larger, local buyer who will be able to buy the high amount of pigment they produce. Much of the pigment will also go toward avenues other than artist-grade work, such as colored concrete and house paint.

“Artist paint is kind of a specialty market and the rest is being sold as a commodity,” Shively says.

The range of colors produced from the iron oxide includes reds, oranges, browns, yellows and one hue called “Reclaimed Earth Violet.” Sabraw has already begun to work with the pigment, creating striking and colorful circular artwork that he says on his website illustrates “the sublimity of nature but also the fragility of our relationship with it.”

“Everything is intertwined,” Sabraw says on his website. “The streams these pigments come from connect to other streams, rivers and eventually the ocean. This might seem a local issue but it is not—it is a global issue.”

Local impact, however, is still strong. Although the test facility is taking up recreational space in the Corning city park, Shively says residents don’t mind. They’re willing to give up some public space in the park, she says, if it means their kids can play in the streams again.

“Community reaction has been very positive,” says Larry Monson, owner of Corning’s My Little Bakery, which closed late December 2018. “Anything positive in Corning is a good thing; anything new in Corning is a good thing.”

Shively emphasizes how the impact of the treatment goes far beyond creating a commodity from the pollution.

“This project really epitomizes the view of cleaning up that legacy of abandoned coal mining that has plagued our region for a long time,” she says. “ … The goal was never paint, the goal was to clean up the streams.”