clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
An illustration depicts four paint tubes in natural, warm hues. The front tube is labeled “Iron Oxide” and is filled with a dry, rocky Appalachian landscape. Karlotta Freier for Vox

Filed under:

How to detox coal country

To clean up poisoned streams, Appalachian researchers are turning acid mine drainage into something unexpected.

Kate Morgan is a freelance journalist who lives in rural Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, National Geographic, BBC, Popular Science, and many other places.

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.

The iron build-up is only half the problem. The other byproduct inside the mine is sulfuric acid, which lowers the water’s pH too much for almost anything beyond some algae to thrive. The main stem of Sunday Creek runs through just over 27 miles of Perry and Athens counties on its way to the Hocking River, then onto the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The Truetown Discharge dumps into the creek about seven miles from its confluence with the Hocking, forming a chemical dam that keeps fish and other species from moving between the river and upstream habitat.

Acid mine drainage can also worsen flooding, as build-up narrows streams and creeks and reduces their capacity for floodwater. At Truetown, the water looks shallow. Really, MacIver says, “there’s about three feet of rust on the bottom. So, you can imagine, area streams that have this problem fill up really quickly.”

Appalachia’s mining legacy has done more than pollute the water, says Kruse Daniels. “It’s altered the way streams behave,” she says. “We end up with these incised channels that don’t really flow out into a floodplain.” The result is worsened flood events. In short, “The land use impacts the water, and the water impacts human health and, broadly, ecological health.”

For the people who live in these rural communities, it’s a local issue. But it has much wider ramifications as we’re forced to consider the true importance of Appalachian ecosystems in the context of climate change.

“A lot of people ask, well, how does this affect the Ohio river? How does it affect my drinking water? And we’re like, it really doesn’t,” says Kruse Daniels. “But one of the things about watershed science, particularly in a changing climate, is that places where fish and invertebrates can live do matter for the greater stability of our water resources. They matter as refugia.”

Aerial shot of oxidized iron minerals in water in an old mining area. Río Tinto, Huelva Province, Spain
Vivid hues in acid mine drainage.
Peter Adams/Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

What does it mean to be a climate refuge?

Geographically speaking, central Appalachia is fairly small. The region comprises southeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and eastern Tennessee. At roughly 29 million acres, it’s a land mass about three-tenths the size of California. But this corner of the world houses some staggering biological diversity. In Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone, scientists have identified more than 19,000 individual plants and animals — including threatened and endangered species like rock gnome lichen, Tennessee pigtoe mussels, Eastern hellbender salamanders, spruce-fir moss spiders, and Carolina northern flying squirrels — and estimate there could be upward of 100,000 more.

Much of that species biodiversity is thanks to the existence of “microclimates”: varied, interconnected habitats that exist amid the unique topography. Deep river gorges, high-elevation peaks, swampy wetlands, and hardwood forest ecosystems all exist in close proximity. It makes this part of Appalachia, according to the Nature Conservancy, a climate stronghold, which the group defines as, “a natural place with enough diversity in its altitude and geology that even as the planet warms, species can survive by moving around within its microclimates.”

The nonprofit also says the region’s “natural resiliency ... puts it alongside the Amazon rainforest and the Kenyan grasslands as one of the most globally important landscapes for tackling climate change and conserving biodiversity,” and its land-mapping project found the area is disproportionately buffered from things like increasing global temperatures and sea-level rise, thanks to its many microclimates.

In 2021, the conservation organization Open Space Institute announced the creation of an $18 million fund that would help preserve 50,000 acres in Appalachia, including a large tract in eastern Tennessee, to protect part of “the world’s largest broadleaf forest, [which is] responsible for a majority of US forest carbon sequestration.” In the area surrounding West Virginia’s New River Gorge, one estimate found that 145,715 metric tons of carbon dioxide were absorbed annually, according to one study cited by the National Park Service (NPS). Of all NPS units in the contiguous United States, those in the Southeast have been cited for sequestering the most carbon: more than 5.3 million metric tons a year.

It’s also a potentially critical climate refuge for humans, as the topography leaves the region much less vulnerable to the extreme effects of climate change. In the widest stretches of the Appalachian chain — including Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky — the “terrain helps to mitigate against the possibility of droughts, high temperatures, and tornadic activity,” according to a 2022 paper by Elizabeth C. Hirschman, a professor of marketing at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

She sees the “rolling ridges that go in sort of a north-south direction” as a selling point that should lure climate migrants from places like California and Texas. “They’re not high like the Rocky Mountains, which block water coming from the ocean and going to the other side — that’s why the desert is so dry. They’re like pyramids, but ours are more like ridges.”

The Appalachian mountains provide temperate humidity, she explains, but also insulate the region from the weather extremes of more coastal mid-Atlantic climes. “We don’t get the hurricanes or winds,” she says, “or the flooding that comes off the ocean.” In the Journal of Environmental Protection, Hirschman called Appalachia the largest climate change haven in the continental United States.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not also a place in biological jeopardy. Each waterway and acre of soil contaminated by acid mine drainage chips away at the region’s resilience, says Kruse Daniels, now and in the future. “It’s hard to measure, but if we write off watersheds as total losses, they lose those ecosystem services and those benefits to society as a whole; in terms of biodiversity, in terms of clean water, in terms of shade and cooling, and all these other things,” she says. If we expect Appalachia to serve as a refuge in the future, she says, we have to be invested in protecting it now.

“High-quality wetlands are going to do more to retain carbon than low-quality ones,” she says. “Healthy forests are going to do more to sequester carbon than strip mine land.”

Aerial shot of oxidized iron minerals in water in old mining area. Río Tinto, Huelva Province, Spain
Aerial view of mine tailings in an old mining area.
Peter Adams/Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

From refuse to resource

While the issue of acid mine drainage — like many of the social and economic problems that plague Appalachia — is daunting, it also represents an opportunity for the people of Appalachia to do what they’re best at: innovate and adapt.

On other regional waterways, community-based efforts have given rise to new industries. On the tributaries of the Cheat River in West Virginia, scientists have built passive limestone filtering systems and restored anaerobic wetlands, and over the course of two decades, a river once incompatible with life is now host to bass fishing tournaments and whitewater rafters.

In the Raccoon Creek watershed, which drains six counties to the west of Athens, Ohio, not far from Truetown, numerous acid mine drainage sites impaired miles of the creek and its smaller streams. There were “maybe a couple dozen fish species in the entire watershed,” says Kruse Daniels. Now, more than 30 river miles downstream have been designated ‘exceptional warmwater habitat,” which Kruse Daniels clarifies as being in the “top 25th percentile in Ohio.”

And on Sunday Creek, MacIver says, True Pigments will “turn the problem into the solution.” The treatment plant isn’t built yet — she is hopeful that it will come online by 2026 — but an estimated $20 million in funding from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and private donors is in place, and crews broke ground on the site earlier this year. For now, the company is operating at a smaller capacity with their first commercial partner: Gamblin’s initial batch of Reclaimed Earth Colors paints are for sale through art supply retailers around the country.

Once the larger facility is up and running, it will produce nearly 6,000 pounds of iron oxide a day, and True Pigments plans to sell it to a host of buyers. Approximately 200,000 metric tons of iron oxide is used in the US each year to color construction materials, tile, plastics, paper, cosmetics, and more; at close to $1 per kilogram, MacIver estimates the profits will come quickly. The greatest benefit, of course, will be to the Sunday Creek. From the moment it goes online, the treatment plant will clean every drop that comes out of the mine. The creek’s restoration, says McIver, should be swift.

Support for the project has been widespread, and in theory, it’s a process that could be replicated at any number of acid mine drainage sites across Appalachia. The biggest barrier to that is funding: MacIver acknowledges this will be successful largely in part due to the willingness of partners like the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to provide significant funding, and similar investments could be tough to come by elsewhere. Still, she says, “We could sublicense this technology and replicate the True Pigments treatment model at other sites,” and the opportunity itself is a new weapon in the region-wide battle against acid mine drainage.

“Clean water is a right for every person and every creature on the planet,” says MacIver. “Thinking about this through an environmental justice lens, there’s no reason people should have orange streams running through their backyard. It’s important we protect these areas, and that we can bring them back. We don’t know what it could mean for us in the future, so protecting it now is really critical.”

Down to Earth

Good news! Scientists are throwing a sex party ... for giant marine snails.

Climate

Why is Biden blocking the cheapest, most popular EVs in the world?

Climate

Texas fires happen in the winter. Just never at this scale before.

View all stories in Climate

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.