In rural Appalachia, thousands of stream miles have long run orange with iron oxide from acid mine drainage, a polluting by-product of abandoned coal mines that’s left a deep imprint on the region. “When some kids draw streams, they pick up the orange crayon because that’s what they know,” said Michelle Shively, director of project development for True Pigments, a project of the Ohio-based nonprofit Rural Action. Working with director of operations Paul Patton, Shively and the project team are harvesting that iron oxide and turning it into iron pigments for high-quality paint. In tackling this large-scale challenge—up to two million pounds of iron oxide can be released every year from a single mine discharge—the team found that pigment sales could pay for water treatment, which would otherwise be cost-prohibitive. What’s more, the project’s proposed full-scale facility at Ohio’s Truetown Discharge would produce 1% of America’s consumption of iron oxide pigment, limiting the industry’s carbon footprint. And in places where coal profits were long sent somewhere else, revenues from pigment sales will now fund watershed restoration and rebuild public health—all while doubling the local payroll. By blending environmental justice, sustainable development, and ecological renewal, True Pigments shows how creative approaches to material reuse can drive social impact.
The legacy of coal mining runs deep in Appalachia, impacting our culture, history, economy, and environment. Acid mine drainage affects approximately 6,650 stream miles in Central Appalachia. Although most of the mines that caused this drainage were long ago abandoned, this legacy of pollution is expected to continue for decades in places with few career opportunities for the current generation. At True Pigments, we’re using innovative technology to revitalize streams devastated by historic coal mining; taking a pollutant and turning it into a commodity that will pay for the restoration of those streams; creating jobs in rural communities; and funding more watershed restoration projects.
None of us started out trying to make paint. That just came as a means to an end, our goal of bringing streams back to life. We kept asking question after question, which led to asking what other ways iron oxide could be used. Dr. Guy Riefler (who developed our technology) was inspired by folks in Pennsylvania and other places who were already using acid mine drainage for pigment. Although our team wasn’t the first to come up with that idea, our process for collecting and refining the pigment is much different than other efforts.
The biggest challenge we currently face for this project is financing the capital costs needed to build a full-scale True Pigments facility at Truetown, the largest acid mine drainage discharge site in Ohio. Our current engineering estimates put the total cost of site development, design, and construction at $7.4 million. With $3.49 million allocated from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the remaining amount to be raised is nearly $4 million. To address this challenge, we have prepared a financing plan that includes grant funding for soft costs and startup funds, and debt capital and/or New Markets Tax Credits for the capital costs of plant equipment and construction.
This project rests on a strong foundation built through more than 25 years of collaboration between Rural Action, Ohio University, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. While many people have led us to this point, one who has been consistent through the project is Dr. Guy Riefler. A professor of civil engineering at Ohio University, Guy developed the technology used in this process. His years of research on innovative solutions to acid mine drainage is where this project got its start, and he remains involved in all aspects of the project’s technology and construction.
John Sabraw is an artist and art professor on our project team. John’s efforts have significantly increased the quality of our pigment, and his artwork has been a catalyst to raise local and national awareness. He takes iron oxide pigment pulled from streams and turns it into beautiful works of art that inspire deep connections to the environment. We’ve built a project that sits squarely at the confluence of engineering, art, social enterprise, and watershed restoration. Through John’s paintings, we’ve been able to reach so many more people and bring so much awareness to our work. Art speaks to people in a way that science just cannot.
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