In the foothills of southeastern Ohio, where ghost towns are all that’s left of what was once a bustling coal mining economy, small streams run in vibrant hues of orange and bright yellow, or sometimes a milky white. Put your hands into the waters near these “black diamond cities,” and you can cup the pigment in your palms.
Before 1977, there were no laws that required companies to clean up the wastewater full of iron, bauxite, sulfuric acid, and other trace metals that flowed freely from mines into surrounding waterways. The acidic runoff, which polluted streams and killed off wildlife that couldn’t adjust to the lowered pH levels, continued after those coal mining operations left. “A million gallons per day of highly acidic high iron content pours into a creek nearby—and the creek is bright orange,” says environmental engineer and Ohio University professor Guy Riefler. That’s why, for the past five years, Riefler has been tinkering with an economically viable way to clean up the rivers and turn acid mine drainage sludge into something beautiful: paint.
“My main objective is to clean up the streams around here,” Riefler explains. “I figured if we could collect the sludge we make, it could offset the cost of operating [a] water treatment plant [near the abandoned mines]. Based on the numbers we got, I’m sure we could at least break even or make a profit by neutralizing the sulfuric acid, and that’s what really kills the fish.”
After lugging five gallons of sludge per trip from the nearby Truetown creek back to the lab (something that happened several times a month with graduate and undergraduate students over the last half-decade), Riefler is now in the final stage of refining his method. The line of pigment he’s currently working on is about 97% iron, and ranges “from orange to yellow to brown to deep red to black.” Riefler has also worked with local artist and art professor John Sabraw to come up with the right formulations, which Sabraw incorporates in huge canvas paintings that depict endangered islands and estuaries across the globe.
Sabraw says he first found out about Riefler’s project through one of his graduate students two years ago. Sabraw taught collaborative art classes based around the idea of sustainability, but shifted gears when one of his first assignments—an idea to save the world in two weeks—failed miserably. “They realized the crushing impossibility of doing this,” Sabraw says. Instead, “We did something they cared about, but could take immediate action to help. And if they didn’t implement it they’d fail.”
Sabraw adds that his students, who “have the world’s most sensitive bullshit meter,” encouraged him to think about his own practice in a different way. “I’m an artist and I buy stuff to make stuff,” he says. “And I have to be responsible for what I buy and what I produce.”
After working with Riefler, Sabraw has gone on to produce several paintings with the acid mine drainage pigment both on aluminum panels and canvas. He also runs a website that helps artists “offset” the environmental toll of their paints and shipping. (Once, Sabraw purchased enough carbon credits to offset the Mona Lisa, after rigorously researching the greenhouse gases generated from Leonardo DaVinci’s materials and the painting’s travel history.)
Sabraw’s latest project, the canvas paintings, will be open to the public on August 22 at Ohio Wesleyan University. Riefler, meanwhile, is working to gain the interest of paint and pigment companies that could partner with his plentiful, unnaturally occurring product. “If I could get that stream cleaned up I’d be really satisfied,” Riefler says. The Truetown seep, which filters into a larger waterway called the Sunday Creek, passes on about a million gallons of water a day—and polluted with 350 mg of iron per liter, works out to about 4,000 pounds of iron dumped into the river daily.
“It’s like you went to the creek and dumped two cars into the creek a day,” Riefler adds. The prospect of cleaning it up through selling off the sludge, he says, is “what keeps me going.”