Painting a Better Landscape

by Hailee Sorensen

At the first Science Cafe of the 2019 fall semester, Dr. Guy Riefler spoke about the contributions of his group to the water contamination crisis that is taking place just outside of the Athens Ohio University campus.

Dr. Riefler has been a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering for OHIO since September 2000 and is currently the chair of this department. As an environmental engineer, Dr. Riefler utilizes chemical techniques to attempt to reverse the negative effects of pollution in the Appalachia area. 

His journey started about a decade ago with the goal of removing the iron from acid mine drainage and converting it into iron oxide paints which are typically very stable and have a rich, red pigment. This acid mine drainage comes from old and abandoned underground coal mines that flooded with water and then drained, carrying pollutants – such as harmful iron – out of the mines and into local water sources. An extreme example of this is located in Corning, Ohio, about half an hour north of Athens, where one of these mines was intentionally opened, releasing all of its contaminated water into Sunday Creek. This pollution then flows into the Hocking River, destroying native aquatic life as well as making the water unsuitable for human recreational activities. 

In an attempt to combat this issue and aid in the restoration of local native species, Dr. Riefler and his group have been designing a water treatment facility that aims to remove the toxic metals and acids from the water, allowing non-toxic water to enter local water reservoirs. 

A pilot treatment facility was started about two years ago near the Sunday Creek mine opening to test the efficiency of this process. Results from this study were encouraging and Dr. Riefler has recently joined forces with Rural Action and has received $3.5 million out of the projected $7 million needed to fund this project. 

Additionally, the paints made with the iron oxide pigments have been advertised to some companies, with Gamblin playing a large role in optimizing and manufacturing the paints. The paints’ performance can be seen here locally in the mural at the Athens bakery, and are now available in yellow, orange, red and purple. 

Overall, Dr. Riefler aims to see this project begin to reverse some of the negative consequences that human activity has caused, specifically here in the Appalachia region. Additionally, he hopes to see the construction and maintenance of this facility create job opportunities in the area that will be supported by the profits of the paint sales.

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