True Pigments is Turning Pollution into Paint

How the Millfield-based organization is restoring the waterways of Appalachian Ohio

Ohio’s legacy in coal mining has always been historic. The state has long been at the forefront of the energy industry, and over the decades, Ohio has helped to pioneer the shift toward more renewable energy resources. True Pigments, based out of Millfield, is redefining that legacy with a twist by working to restore waterways affected by abandoned mines and using the chemical byproducts to create paint pigments.

“Our vision at True Pigments is to restore streams that have been impacted by acid mine drainage,” said Director of Project Development Michelle Shively MacIver. “We take the polluted water that’s coming out of abandoned mines, treat it, and put it back into streams for the aquatic ecosystem. We then take iron oxide, the pollutant that has caused this problem, and process it into a high-quality pigment product.”

True Pigments is a social enterprise under the umbrella of Rural Action and born out of the minds of Ohio University professors Guy Riefler and John Sabraw. Its facility at Sunday Creek in Southeast Ohio is aimed at cleaning up and restoring seven miles of the stream. The massive amount of iron that affects those waterways is then processed into pigments for paints.

“The most common metals we see in the mine water here in Ohio are iron, aluminum, and manganese,” Shively MacIver said. “And at this site, it’s almost all iron, so that’s what we’re targeting. We have a two-step treatment process. The first is to precipitate that iron and then process the iron sludge into pigment, which we dry in industrial quantities. We’re able to get 6,000 pounds of iron out of this water every day, which is over two million pounds a year.”

Currently, the organization produces three pigments, brown ochre, rusty red, and earth violet, which are sold to help fund operation of the restoration project at Sunday Creek. Those profits are also used for other stream sites in Ohio impacted by acid mine drainage or otherwise funneled back in the watershed restoration program at Rural Action.

“None of us started out trying to make paint or pigment — I think a lot of our passion comes from just trying to clean water,” she said. “For me, that’s tied to the aquatic organisms and all of the things we see living in streams, as well as the people who live in this area. Clean water is a foundational right that every living being should have, and that drives a lot of the work that we do, trying to figure out how we can leave this world a little better than we found it.”

Shively MacIver credits the ongoing success of the project to a team effort, driven by the funding and support of Rural Action in collaboration with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and TechGROWTH, a funded partner of Ohio Third Frontier. As True Pigments works to further its mission of “creating colors for a cleaner world,” it has also received a lot of support from local Ohio communities.

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