How to detox coal country

This story is part of a Vox series examining how the climate crisis is impacting communities around the world, as the 28th annual United Nations conference on climate change (COP28) unfolds.

The most striking thing about the water tumbling out of the ground behind a small cluster of houses in southeastern Ohio isn’t the smell — a sharp, unmistakable sulfur. It’s also not the color, a vibrant red-orange. The weirdest thing about the Truetown Discharge is the silence.

Just before dark on a warm autumn night, there should be a cacophony of crickets and cicadas in the tall grass along the water. Frogs should be singing and splashing into the shallows. Bats should be circling, owls calling, small mammals and salamanders skittering in the leaves.

Instead, there’s only the sound of the water, forcing its way up and out of a 23-square-mile warren of coal mine tunnels.

In rural Millfield, 35 miles or so from the West Virginia border, the Truetown Discharge has been bubbling out of the mine once known as AS-193 for nearly 40 years. Since 1984, it has dumped billions of gallons of water loaded with sulfuric acid and iron oxide — otherwise known as acid mine drainage — into Sunday Creek. In 1997, an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency report found that 13 miles of the waterway were, essentially, dead: “irretrievably damaged to the extent that no appreciable aquatic life can be supported.” With nearly 1,000 gallons released every minute, this is the largest and most extreme acid mine drainage site in the state.

But not for long. A major project is underway to clean up the discharge, restore the health of Sunday Creek and the watershed around it, and build a whole new industry by creating a product from a pollutant. Rural Action, a local community development nonprofit, collaborated with Ohio University, the state’s Department of Natural Resources, and the US Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to build a water treatment plant that can neutralize the sulfuric acid and extract the iron oxide, which — unexpectedly — can be made into something beautiful.

Rural Action and its partners created True Pigments, LLC. At its future headquarters in Millfield, the company will transform acid-mine drainage into raw material that’s used to create paints and tints for commercial products from bricks to blush, all while creating local jobs, cleaning up the creek, and making enough money that the whole thing pays for itself. The first product made with iron oxide from Sunday Creek is a set of oil paints created by Gamblin Artists Colors. The three-pack of pigments — Brown Ochre, Rust Red, and Iron Violet — is called “Reclaimed Earth Colors.”

The growth of True Pigments is an innovative example of community adaptation and valuable proof-of-concept. If Sunday Creek can be revived, its flora and fauna brought back to life, the model could be replicated elsewhere. Estimates on the number of aquatic miles in central Appalachia affected by acid mine drainage vary, with conservative projections starting at 10,000 miles and even more recent analysis suggests upward of 40,000 miles.

Cleaning them up and restoring their biodiverse ecosystems are more important than ever as we look to central Appalachia as a potential climate stronghold. Long viewed in the national consciousness as a wrung-out region with little left to offer, the area is teeming with biodiversity and a varied set of microclimates that grant it resilience in the face of climate change.

An aerial shot of brownish-red water.

Aerial shot of oxidized iron minerals in the water at an old mining area.
Peter Adams/Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Acid mine drainage, explained

Everywhere coal is mined — however it’s mined — something is left behind. At surface mines, where huge machinery strips away the top layers of the earth, the coal is separated from the surrounding rock and what remains are piles of refuse. Known as tailings or slag (or, more colloquially, culm or gob), the loose rubble is saturated with toxins and heavy metals. With each rain, more and more of the contaminants leach into the soil and nearby waterways.

In underground mines, removing the coal leaves other minerals exposed. This is especially problematic in places like southeastern Ohio, where there’s a lot of what Natalie Kruse Daniels, professor and director of the environmental studies program at Ohio University, calls “sulfur coal.”

“Primarily what we find is pyrite — something that most people recognize as ‘fool’s gold,’” she says. “As it’s exposed to oxygen and water, that sulfide weathers and it produces acid and a lot of iron.”

That’s what is happening below the ground at the Truetown Discharge. The mine was abandoned and sealed in 1964 with the coal gone and sulfide minerals like pyrite left behind. It filled up, either with rainwater, groundwater, captured surface water, or a combination. In 1984, mounting pressure forced open the seal and the acid brew burst forth, carrying 6,000 pounds of iron oxide — basically, rust — out into Sunday Creek every day.

“The best estimate we have on this is that it will continue discharging for at least 600 to 800 years,” says Michelle Shively MacIver. She began working with Rural Action as the Sunday Creek Watershed Coordinator more than a decade ago. Today, she’s the director of project development at True Pigments.

The iron oxide is heavy, MacIver explains, and at Sunday Creek it precipitates out of the water fairly quickly, building up in thick, rough-looking scales along the creek bed and the shore. “The biggest problem the iron poses is it covers the entire bottom, and it just suffocates a healthy aquatic system,” she says. “Life happens in those rough areas on the bottom where there’s a lot of rocks and the water goes fast. In those interstitial spaces between the rocks, fish lay eggs, bugs deposit their larvae. The little fish come to get food and hide, and the big fish go there to find them.”

Without the plant and microbial life, insects and fish, the bottom falls out of the food chain; larger amphibians and reptiles, birds, and mammals vanish from the ecosystem, too.

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