Truetown pollution-to-paint project marks milestone

A years-long, multimillion-dollar project that converts Sunday Creek pollutants into paint marked a major milestone last week.
A long line of people stands with shovels on a mound of dirt in a field on a hazy day.
Breaking ground for a facility that will convert pollutants to paint. Photo by Dani Kington.

MILLFIELD, Ohio — A years-long, multimillion-dollar project that converts Sunday Creek pollutants into paint marked a major milestone last week.

Around 80 people attended a ceremony along Truetown Road in Millfield to break ground on construction for a new facility that will clean up acid mine drainage.

The project is a partnership among the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio University, regional environmental nonprofit Rural Action, and True Pigments, a for-profit LLC Rural Action operates. 


“Together we’re imagining a world where Appalachian streams run clear and where vibrant economies flourish in these historic coal towns,” Michelle Shively Maclver, True Pigments director of project development, said at the ceremony.

Acid mine drainage typically forms when water flows through abandoned mines. A chemical reaction occurs as the water flows against rocks containing sulfur-bearing minerals, resulting in highly acidic water which contains sulfuric acid and heavy metals. When this water leaves mines, it flows into and pollutes waterways, harming the natural environment and aquatic species. 

Water rushes through a rusted metal gate surrounded by lush green plants, then pooling bright orange at the head of a stream.
The Truetown Seep on Truetown Road is the worst acid mine drainage discharge site in Ohio. Photo by Dani Kington.

The site on Truetown Road is the worst acid mine drainage site in Ohio, releasing 988 gallons per minute. Annually, that means over 2 million pounds of iron oxide flows into Sunday Creek from the site each year. Sunday Creek is dead for seven miles as a result, Rural Action CEO Debbie Phillips said at the groundbreaking.

The construction on Truetown Road will divert the discharge to a plant that can treat 1,000 to 1,200 gallons per minute, Maclver said.

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A fenced area featuring industrial equipment sits along a lush green tree-line.
A pilot processing facility operated by True Pigments on Truetown Road processed a little over two gallons of acid mine drainage per minute — a far cry from the 1,000 to 1,200 gallons per minute for which the new facility will have capacity. Photo by Dani Kington.

Before the plant can be built, the area must be raised above the floodplain by moving dirt from elsewhere on the property. The clean water will be separated and flow into Sunday Creek via wetlands in the floodplain. The wetland area will be publicly accessible and may feature educational signage, presenters said.

Meanwhile, the facility will convert the iron sludge separated from the water into products for paint. Philips estimated that the plant will produce 0.5% of the national market for iron oxide pigment.

A box featuring three paint tubes labeled ‘Gamblin’ sit in front of three frames displaying the corresponding pigments: Rust Red, Iron Violet and Brown Ochre.
Three colors produced by the pollution-to-paint process. Photo by Dani Kington.

Construction of the facility on 39 acres formerly used for farming on Truetown Road follows laboratory process testing, which began in 2017 and spanned several years. 

OU College of Fine Arts painting and drawing chair John Sabraw and OU Russ College of Engineering and Technology civil engineering chair Guy Riefler helped develop and assess the paint byproducts, according to an ODNR press release. 

Further reading: How pollution turns into paint

In an OU press release, Sabraw said the project demonstrates “how art plays a vital role in creating a vibrant community.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, AMD can be highly toxic and have harmful effects on humans, as well as plants and animals. However, Liz Myers, an Ohio University graduate student working on the project, said testing results from paint products show “everything that we work with is very low toxicity, if none at all … We didn’t find anything that could hurt you.”

Two people stand on a small wooden bridge over a bright orange stream, one gesturing while speaking.
Ohio University graduate assistant Liz Myers speaks while standing on a bridge at the acid mine drainage discharge site beside Michelle Shively Maclver, director of project development for True Pigments. Photo by Dani Kington.

Rural Action has worked to restore regional waterways including Sunday Creek for over 25 years, including by addressing the effects of AMD. The Truetown project has received millions in funding from state and federal sources, including Ohio’s Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization Program and the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law.

Maclver hopes the project can pave the way for future efforts to address acid mine drainage through social enterprise and suggested this may not be the only facility True Pigments will eventually operate. 

“As soon as we prove it on the ground here at Truetown — this first full-scale facility — I think folks would be incredibly interested in adding — potentially the whole process, but specifically the pigments — onto existing AMD treatment systems in other states and potentially across the country,” Maclver said in an in interview.

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