Turning Pollution Into Paint

By Katelyn Rousch

True Pigments developed a business model to revive the mine-crippled red creeks of southeastern Ohio.

Community members have described the upwellings from old pump stations in Appalachia as everything from “tomato soup” to “orange kool-aid,” but the acid mine drainage, or AMD, is as drinkable as blood. The Truetown discharge, one of the worst sites in Ohio, bleeds iron-filled water too acidic for aquatic life into the Sunday Creek and Hocking River — almost 1000 gallons per minute. 

In early 2020, True Pigments, a social enterprise of Rural Action, purchased 48 acres surrounding the Truetown discharge. Their large-scale facility will harvest iron oxide from the water and restore the pH to a neutral seven by adding lime. The Director of Project Development for True Pigments, Michelle Shively, is optimistic about the impact the business will have on this site when it begins operations in 2024.

“The exciting part about this project is because we are gonna get this water at the source and not just treat it as it’s coming downstream… the day we flip the switch on to the full-scale True Pigments facility, we’re gonna be improving water quality immediately,” Shively said.

Acid mine drainage is an expensive problem for southeast Ohio. While some restoration projects have been successful, all of them share hefty price tags. The expense of removing and disposing of the iron within the water drives expenses into the millions. Treating the iron in AMD as a waste product is cost-prohibitive for creek restorations.

“What we needed to do was to figure out a way to either use the iron as it was or turn the iron into something that could be valuable,” Shively said.

True Pigments was the brainchild of Ohio University professors John Sabraw and Guy Riefler. They came up with a plan to foot the bill for AMD projects by tapping into the iron-oxide market.

“The [iron-oxide] market is huge, in the US, 335 million dollars every year… about 84 percent of that is actually imported from overseas,” Shively said.

Manufacturers use iron oxide in paint, fertilizer, plastics, bricks, food additives, clay roof tiles and cosmetics. True Pigments has partnered with the Portland-based paint company Gamblin to distribute the three AMD colors they have developed so far. Shively also notes that True Pigments’ iron oxide extraction will have a positive side-effect for climate change. Since their operations are domestic, carbon emissions from overseas shipments will decline. 

“The vision for that money, for the profit this company makes, is that it would be funneled back into additional watershed restoration projects and also back into the business so we can replicate these treatment systems at new sites,” Shively said.

The social enterprise has also partnered with local schools to raise awareness about acid mine drainage, teaching students about the history of unregulated mining in the region. 

“So much wealth and so much power were taken from the resources of this land… all of the benefits went somewhere else and all of the bad stayed here,” Shively said.

Problems like AMD arise from the disconnect between a business and the region it serves, one that makes pollution into an opportunity cost and lives into statistics. True Pigments has a mission to invest in the natural and human resources of the southeastern Ohio community in order to change this legacy.

“We all live downstream,” Shively said.

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