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The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines abandoned mine drainage (AMD) as water that is polluted from contact with mining activity. AMD is a common form of water pollution in areas where mining has occurred, especially coal mining.

Once mining operations cease, the remaining cavern fills with water, which originates from rain, hail, or snow, and contains dissolved oxygen. The largest risk associated with AMD is the chemical reaction of surface water with rocks that contain sulfur-bearing minerals, resulting in sulfuric acid orange-red ferric hydroxide. The acid leaches a combination of minerals that may be highly toxic and have harmful effects on humans, animals, and plants.

An example of the far-reaching consequences of AMD is located in the Sunday Creek watershed, Ohio. The Truetown Discharge is the largest single AMD discharge in the state of Ohio with approximately 2,183,065 pounds of iron oxide dumped into Sunday Creek each year at a flow rate of 988 gallons per minute.

Enter two professors from Ohio University: Guy Riefler, the civil engineer who invented the technique to collect contaminated water from abandoned mines and filter out the iron, and John Sabraw, the artist who recognized the potential for colored waste.

In 2011 Riefler secured funding to continue the project and devote a group of graduate students to the effort, and together the two innovators created research groups of art and engineering students dedicated to processing the iron through filtration, drying, and grinding it into iron oxide pigments.

Source: Great Big Story/YouTube

As the pigment is a marketable product that can be used to color paints and other materials, the researchers figured out how to leverage economic benefits from an environmental liability, while cleaning up AMD deposits.

According to Michelle Shively MacIver, the Director of Product Development at True Pigments:

“14 miles of the West Branch of Sunday Creek have improved chemically and biologically to meet Warm Water Habitat criteria. At one monitoring site, we went from finding ZERO fish before AMD treatment to finding seventeen species of native fish that had returned!”

In 2018, Riefler and Sabraw, in collaboration with a local non-profit partner organization, Rural Action, created 500 limited edition oil paints with paint company Gamblin. These paints, aptly named “Reclaimed Earth Colors” were offered as a reward for supporters of the Kickstarter campaign that funded their research-scale pilot facility.

The success of these initial ventures led to the establishment of Rural Action’s True Pigments, which is the fruit of a collaborative effort of stakeholders in the community, Ohio University, the state Department of Natural Resources, the Ohio EPA, and other agencies. If this story inspired you to make a change, you can use this calculator to find out your ecological footprint, and read here to learn how to reduce your footprint. (Spoiler alert: eat plant-based).

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