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Pollution Turned Art

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The Smithsonian Magazine blog has a great story this week about an environmental engineering professor at Ohio University who, with a little chemistry know-how, is transforming blight into beauty.  In collaboration with John Sabraw, an art professor at the same University, Dr. Guy Riefler is producing iron-rich paints from acid mine drainage.     

The state of Pennsylvania [where I live] is scarred by the activities of the coal mining industry. When mining companies walked away from the vast, black labyrinths they created underground, turning off the pumps that kept the water table at bay, they left behind an environmental disaster known as acid mine drain. Pennsylvania has been dealing with coal mining’s environmental effects for over 150 years.  When you realized how vast the problem is, you can understand why.  The site StateImpact reports: 

…more than 300 million gallons of polluted water from decades of coal mining operations, flows into the state’s rivers and streams every day.

…more than 184,000 acres of abandoned mine lands exist across the state, resulting in “4,000 miles of biologically dead rivers and streams due to mine pollution.”

The streams can do longer support life because of their elevated metal and acid concentrations which result when water fills the empty mines reacting with oxygen and exposed iron sulfide (pyrite).  Waterways become a yellowish-orange sludge.  

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Dr. Reifler is collecting water from draining mines before the metals precipitate and taking it back to the lab to control their release from solubility.  He then dries the colorful precipitates and repurposes them as pigments in acrylic and oil paints.

He will be sending the product to pigment vendors. Ultimately, the plan is to sell the paint commercially, with the proceeds going to cleaning up polluted streams in Ohio