Turning Toxic Coal Mine Waste into the Stuff of Art
By Lauren Gibbons Paul
Wearing a worn smock stained with a rainbow of oil paints, John Sabraw’s vocation is clear to see. Sabraw, who chairs the painting and drawing and the digital art programs at Ohio University in Athens, never expected to find himself working alongside engineers, scientists, historians, state officials, students, and environmentalists on a major ecological cleanup project. But that’s exactly where he is, a top player in a circular initiative to remove toxic acid mine drainage (AMD) from Ohio streams. Once removed, the chemicals are repurposed as earth-toned paints, which are sold to fund more cleanup.
“Isn’t the saying, ‘If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room’? I’m never in the wrong room,” Sabraw says. Aside from his extraordinary intellect, Sabraw also has an undeniable gift for bringing together a diverse group of people to solve a difficult problem.
As depicted in the film Beautiful Poison, the multidisciplinary team came together over a period of years to clean up Ohio’s streams polluted with acid that drained from abandoned coal mines that had not been properly sealed. The team worked primarily with two sites along Sunday Creek in the southeastern part of the state. The film vividly shows the effects of iron oxide that has seeped into the groundwater and streams, killed off the wildlife and plants, and stained the water orange. Over several years, Sabraw and his Ohio University colleague, engineering professor Guy Riefler, developed a technique to intercept the poisonous pollutant before it affected streams – sometimes a highly manual, labor-intensive process involving lines of people armed with buckets catching orange sludge as it discharged into the streams. Then, they went one step further: figuring out how to remove toxins from the pollutant and then repurpose this toxic sludge to make commercially viable paint pigment from it to fund further cleanup – a virtuous cycle, indeed.
The film is part of SAP’s Road to Regeneration film series, produced in partnership with Hot Docs. Still images included in this article are from the film.
SAP Insights talked to Sabraw about how he heard sustainability calling.
Q: You’re an artist first and foremost. How did you get involved with cleaning up polluted Ohio streams?
John Sabraw: Nature is where I feel most at home, most at rest. And that’s because of how I grew up. My father would come back from a tour in the Air Force and the first thing he would do is throw us in the pickup, and we would go to a lake, to the mountains, to the streams. We lived in Idaho at the time, and we would fish trout and eat it there. We would make fires and camp and hike. That has stayed with me my whole life.
Later, as I was becoming an artist, I was politically active in many different ways, trying to shape the world to be a better place. And a lot of that was about making a lot of noise. But I discovered that making a lot of noise doesn’t create change, necessarily. So, I began looking into sustainability as a focus of my activities – the equitable sharing of resources.
After I got this position here at Ohio University in 2008 or so, I started working with a group of environmental studies faculty, professors who wanted to educate other faculty about the environment in southeastern Ohio. They took us out on field trips to different places including streams. And the streams were orange, brackish, and smelled really terrible, like sulfur. And that was the first time that I saw acid mine drainage (AMD) pollution, which occurs when a coal mine is abandoned without being sealed properly and highly acidic water leaches into nearby streams. It was very alarming. The fish cannot live in the acid.
– John Sabraw, artist, academic, and environmental activist.
The healthy habitats are completely covered over by the iron, which becomes iron oxyhydroxide once it reaches sunlight and oxygen. It leads to a degradation of water quality and the inability to support aquatic life.
And that’s why you get this big orange stream with nothing living in it. AMD pollution kills over 1,300 miles of streams in Ohio alone.
I had this instinct – we have to do something about this. But environmental work is not my field of expertise, right? It was just a desire.
How did you get the idea to clean up the streams and then repurpose the iron oxide as paint that could be sold to fund further cleanup?
The pollution causing the streams to turn orange was iron oxides. I realized most of my paints are iron oxides. All of my earth colors are iron oxides. The earliest cave paintings are made with iron oxide. I was like, “Can I make paint out of it and maybe even sell it?” And nobody knew. I didn’t know. I took a jar of the iron oxide sludge with me back to the studio, and I tried to make paint out of it. And it went pretty badly. What I didn’t understand at the time was how many impurities were in it. The paint that resulted in those early days was staggeringly varied in thickness and would clump a lot. And the color was just awful. It was mud, and it ended up looking like mud.
I thought it was just a fantasy. But it was about that time that I discovered my colleague, Professor Riefler, just happened to be working on the same problem I was. He needed an artist who knew about paint. We started working from there. The question was, can we make a pigment out of the iron oxides that would be valuable enough on the market to actually fund the cleanup of the streams? Because the real problem is money, right? If we had a staggering sum of money we could throw it at it, we could build a traditional treatment plant and take all the iron out, or we could just pay to landfill it somewhere else. The idea was not to have the leaching problem. But we didn’t have a staggering sum to throw at it.
When did things begin to turn more promising for the project?
The turning point was in about 2013. We started to have more success. Professor Riefler would take sludge from the streams or direct AMD pollution from the mines. And we would process it in the lab. And we would have discussions back and forth about like, well, let’s get it precipitated in a smaller crystal form. Let’s try this, let’s try that. It’s a simple chemical process with infinite variation. It was the infinite variation that was killing us. I was out west, on a trip teaching my daughter about the nature I loved. We went all the way down the coast. And when we got to Portland, Oregon, I dropped my wife and daughter off at the science museum and walked into the Gamblin oil paint factory there. I said, “Okay, I’ve got to talk to somebody because I’ve got this thing we’re working on.” And they were they were like, “Do we really want to talk to this [unfamiliar] man off the street?” I wouldn’t leave.
Eventually, the front desk person said, “Okay, I talked to our manager Scott. He can come out and talk to you right here. But you have to stay right here. And he only has two minutes. He’s very busy today.”
I have to give Scott a lot of credit. When I left about three hours later, we had an agreement they would test our pigments there. Over time, we learned how to make a nontoxic, super high-quality pigment. We ran a Kickstarter campaign to get these paints to artists around the world. Gamblin sent an e-mail to their 80,000 subscribers talking about how this paint helps clean up the environment. We raised US$33,138 from 488 pledges.
Artists can play a role in sustainability. Now, Gamblin sells a line of paints based on our reclaimed iron oxides. Persistence pays off.
Around that time, you started to get a lot of attention, is that right?
Yes, in 2017, I got an invitation to go to England and do a TEDx talk. We got some funding to build a pilot plant to clean up one of the worst seep sites in Corning, Ohio. I had grad students working with the historical society of Corning to figure out what the citizens thought of themselves as a town now and what they thought about AMD and a lot of other things. It was a great lesson for us to figure out how to honor that community and have them be a part of it. Our plant was never vandalized. It was a really good relationship.
That project led to the state-of-art treatment plant you are building, which is highlighted in the film. Tell us about it.
Now, we have funding from a variety of sources to build an acid mine drainage treatment plant, located on a 39-acre project site in Truetown, Ohio, in Athens County. The goal of the treatment plant is to both treat the 1,000 gallons-per-minute acidic discharge to restore seven miles of Sunday Creek and to recover and process the iron hydroxide precipitate to generate a sellable feedstock for paint pigment production.
Our request for proposals went out in early October 2022 and we will review qualified proposals in January 2023, with the goal of breaking ground in May. It’s very exciting. Funding for our research from the last 10 years has come from Ohio University and the Sugar Bush Foundation, as well as some from Gamblin Artists Colors and Russ College of Engineering alum Dick Dickerson. The plant will be funded by Abandoned Mines Land Reclamation funds, through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The final amount is not yet set, but we think it will be in the millions.
– John Sabraw, artist, academic, and environmental activist.
When it is fully operational, the plant will be able to intercept all 1.2 million gallons of pollution every single day. Every day, we will process all of that pollution through our plant, and it will not get to the stream. And we will not be sitting there with huge buckets, catching the sludge as you see in the film. That’s good news, as my back is shattered. I’ve paid a physical price for this project for sure.
What is the most satisfying part of this project for you?
It’s the beautiful – frankly, life-affirming – community that grows when people come together. We work with all these people from different places. It’s not just my class; it’s engineering students and volunteers and people who just happen to be in a sustainability club at the university, people at Rural Action (a nonprofit sustainable development group) and Ohio Department of Natural Resources people and people from the historical society – it’s a cobbled-together group of people who have a common interest. We all work really, really hard and you know, and fall in love with each other a little bit. It’s really inspiring to see what people can do when they come together.
What message would you like people to take away from Beautiful Poison?
My experience in this project has made me a staunch believer in crossing disciplinary boundaries. I think the success of the human species on this planet stems from collaboration, the ability to work with one another. When it comes to solving the complex, multi-ecosystem problems we are facing, we cannot go at them in silos anymore. We have to build teams of people working together who are crossing disciplinary boundaries to share the best ideas. Nobody set out with any bad will to hurt the environment. I’m not telling anyone that it’s their fault. But the complexities we face right now, the timeline that we face right now, requires us to cross those boundaries. And if we bring creative people, with tech people, with businesspeople together in the same space to address these issues, we can get there. And we can do it at a pace that we couldn’t even imagine right now. That’s what I take away from my experience on this project. And that’s what I hope other people will take away.
Meet the Authors
SAP Insights Newsletter
Gain key insights by subscribing to our newsletter.