Next to a small creek in the Appalachian village of Corning, Ohio, a leak coming from a network of abandoned coal mines pumps out roughly a million gallons of polluted water each day. It’s a common occurrence in the region, where iron oxide seeping from former mines turns some streams bright orange and kills aquatic life. But at the “mine seep” in Corning, a new experiment will soon begin capturing pollution and turning it into something useful: pigment for paint.
At a pilot plant designed to prove that the process can be used to address mine pollution at a large scale, researchers from Ohio University will work with a watershed expert and artists to launch a process that has been in development in labs since 2010. At the plant, a small system next to the stream, the polluted water will be pumped up from the mine seep and then go through a series of mechanical steps that make it clean enough to safely enter the stream; as the process happens, iron oxide settles at the bottom of a tank, where it can be collected and then used as a pigment. The initial color is orange, and when heated to a certain temperature, it turns to deep red. Heating it further turns it violet.
It took years of tweaking the process to make a product that could be commercially viable. In the beginning, “it was pretty much just like horrible green mud,” says John Sabraw, an artist and art professor at Ohio University who has been collaborating on the project with Guy Riefler, an engineering professor at the university who initially conceived of the idea. “It was not anything close to a pigment, and it was not anything close to beautiful or desirable in any way, shape, or form.”
By 2015, “we really achieved something that I felt was a viable artist pigment that would be valuable for its inherent properties, not simply because of its backstory,” Sabraw says. He was using paint made from the pigment in his own work. At that point, he approached Gamblin, a manufacturer of oil paints for artists. Sabraw happened to be visiting Portland, Oregon, where the company is based, and walked inside without an appointment. The production manager spoke with him in a conversation that ended up lasting two hours and led to a collaboration. Gamblin now plans to produce a limited edition paint–“Reclaimed Earth Violet”–from the new pilot plant.
Abandoned mines have polluted an estimated 1,300 miles of waterways in Ohio alone. Until 1972, when the Clean Water Act took effect, no laws required mining companies to clean up their acidic, heavy metal-filled wastewater. Many mines still aren’t properly sealed, and the flow of pollution, called acid mine drainage, can’t be stopped.
“A lot of the places where there are very bad seeps, like this one…come from an incredibly complex underground system of coal mines that have been abandoned,” says Sabraw. “When they’re abandoned and improperly sealed, it is far more likely that this will happen. Once it happens, it’s too late. Because of the volume of water coming out and the pressure that’s built up, you just can’t cap it anymore at that site until we can bring the water down.”
The new pilot plant will only clean a fraction of the polluted water spewing out. But after a few years of testing, once the team has proven that the process works, it can begin to address the entire problem. “At that point, if we build a full-scale plant, we could intercept 100% of the pollution at that site before it gets to the stream,” he says. “It’s our goal.” After decades of capturing the polluted water–perhaps 150 to 200 years, because water keeps seeping into mines through small cracks–it could then become possible to fully seal off the former mines. The water level needs to drop before sealing could be possible.
When produced at a greater scale, the pigment can find uses beyond oil paints. The single location in Corning could produce 2,000 pounds of pigment a day; Sabraw says that it could be sold by the trainload to companies that color cement or ceramics at a large scale. It could also be used for house paint. The market for industrial applications in the U.S. is over 200,000 tons a year.
The pilot plant, funded by an organization called the Sugar Bush Foundation that works with Ohio University and local communities, will begin operating later this year. In a Kickstarter campaign with awards like sludge in a jar and a tube of the new paint, the team is also raising money for a public art wall around the plant that will explain the project.
“We’re trying to make this art wall be something that is really a destination– something that really says something impactful about how I think culture has shifted toward the idea of sustainability now,” says Sabraw.