True Pigments creates colors for a cleaner world. Our proprietary technology turns pollution from historic coal mining into vibrant pigments for use in paint and other products. The more we succeed, the cleaner our streams become.
True Pigments is a social enterprise, equally motivated to generate profit that will be used to advance the mission and values of Rural Action, create socio-economic opportunities for the local community, and to clean and restore Sunday Creek in Appalachian Ohio, allowing life to return to seven miles of stream. True Pigments is committed to turning the environmental destruction of yesterday’s extractive industries into a vibrant, regenerative environment and economy for the future. We’re creating colors for a cleaner world.
The True Pigments project is a collaboration among Ohio University, Ohio Department of Natural Resources - Division of Mineral Resources Management, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, and Rural Action that leverages skills in engineering, art, watershed restoration, and community development to build a social enterprise committed to the quadruple bottom line of people, planet, prosperity, and purpose. As such, we believe this project will have lasting impacts in the following ways.
Those of us who live in Appalachia know that more than 6,650 stream miles in Central Appalachia run orange due to the impact of acid mine drainage. Although most of the mines that caused this drainage were long ago abandoned, this legacy of pollution is expected to continue for decades, creating polluted streams throughout economically depressed communities with few career opportunities for the current generation of families in this region.
Our history may be one of extraction, but our future is one of innovation. The mines of Appalachia fueled the cities that created the middle class. Although the wealth created by Appalachian labor now belongs to others, we remain proud of our mining heritage and our role in building the America we all know today.
We’ve been able to build a project that sits squarely at the confluence of engineering, art, social enterprise, and watershed restoration. Through John Sabraw’s paintings, we’ve been able to reach so many more people and bring so much awareness to our work. Art speaks to people in a way that science just cannot.
"We went from finding ZERO fish before AMD treatment to finding SEVENTEEN species of native fish that had returned!"
My drive to do this work comes from a profound belief in the natural world’s inherent value and right for existence, along with a deep concern for my fellow humans. The fish, macroinvertebrates, and other aquatic organisms that formerly lived in streams decimated by AMD deserve to be in those streams. The people who live in the old coal towns near these decimated streams deserve to live in an unpolluted environment where streams don’t run orange—and deserve to have access to meaningful jobs they can use to build a life and family in this region. I consider AMD and abandoned minelands an environmental and social justice issue. I believe that if these rivers were running through a more populated and affluent region, many of these issues would already have been addressed. Healthy people need healthy environments, and healthy economies need healthy people and healthy environments. Reclamation of abandoned minelands and treatment of AMD has positive impacts on the economic health of a region and its people.
Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) resulting from historic coal mining affects thousands of miles of streams across Central Appalachia and contaminates drinking water reserves and aquifers. Approximately 6,650 stream miles in the Central Appalachian states of Ohio,Pennsylvania, and West Virginia are affected by AMD. Although most of the mines that caused AMD were long ago abandoned, this legacy of pollution is expected to continue for decades, creating polluted streams throughout economically depressed communities that have limited resources to correct these enduring impacts.
The Truetown Discharge, located in the Sunday Creek watershed, is the largest single AMD discharge in the state of Ohio with a flow rate of 988 gallons per minute. This amounts to approximately 2,183,065 pounds of iron oxide dumping into Sunday Creek each year, decimating aquatic habitat for seven miles!
"The Truetown Discharge, located in the Sunday Creek watershed, is the largest single AMD discharge in the state of Ohio with a flow rate of 988 gallons per minute. This amounts to approximately 2,183,065 pounds of iron oxide dumping into Sunday Creek each year, decimating aquatic habitat for seven miles! "
Nearly twenty years ago, Rural Action’s Sunday Creek Watershed coordinator contacted Ohio University Civil Engineering Professor Dr. Guy Riefler for advice on technologies to clean up the Truetown seep, the worst AMD pollution source in the region. The meeting concluded with the understanding that no affordable technology existed. Dr. Riefler began a small research project to begin testing models. Through the work of students in engineering and art, Dr. Riefler and John Sabraw, an art professor at Ohio University, gradually developed and refined a process that could remediate the Truetown seep while generating revenue.
In 2017, Ohio University and Rural Action began testing the laboratory process in the field. The team built a research-scale treatment plant in Corning, Ohio, at a large AMD discharge on Sunday Creek, working with the Corning Village Council. Citizen volunteers and students helped the team clear the site and build the facility’s concrete foundation. Engineering and art students worked together to design and build each step in the treatment system so that it would also serve as a public art exhibit. Art students met with community members to fabricate an art wall surrounding the facility to tell the story of the community along with details of the process.
By 2019, the research plant validated the process, so the team returned to the original objective from a decade ago — cleaning up and restoring the lower 7 miles of Sunday Creek. Because of the unique combination of community involvement, environmental restoration, and entrepreneurship, they were awarded $3.5 million to begin design and construction of a full-scale AMD treatment and pigment product facility at Truetown.
In 2018, Rural Action decided to create a social enterprise to turn the initiative into a full-fledged business. True Pigments, LLC, was born. True Pigments then proceeded to buy the largest acid mine drainage seep in the state of Ohio to locate a full-scale production facility that will extract iron oxide from the drainage for use in pigments and other products. Director of Project Development Michelle Shively and Director of Operations Paul Patton are working to secure funding for the build-out and hope to have the Truetown facility fully operational by January 2023.
The J.M. Kaplan Innovation Prize is awarded biennially to ten non-profit and mission-driven for-profit organizations tackling America’s most pressing challenges through social innovation — defined as those pilot projects, new organizations, or nascent initiatives that involve a certain amount of measured risk but which may ultimately lead to large-scale, transformative results. In 2019, our True Pigments project was chosen as one of ten winners out of 1,354 applications from all 50 states! Each awardee receives up to $175,000 over three years and participates in a learning collaborative of fellow innovators to support their journey as change agents.
True Pigments team members Dr. Guy Riefler and Michelle Shively were honored by the Water Management Association of Ohio at their annual conference with the 2019 Distinguished Service Award for their work on the Acid Mine Drainage → Pigment project.
One of the Prize application reviewers, Tensie Whelan, Director of NYU Stern School of Business’s Center for Sustainable Business, said, “True Pigments has a proven technology, large potential environmental and social impact, a good scale-up plan, and a self-sustaining, credible team.”
Learn more and view a short video of Michelle Shively and True Pigments Director of Operations Paul Patton discussing the initiative, below.
None of us at True Pigments started out trying to make paint. That just came as a means to an end, trying to accomplish our goal of cleaning up acid mine drainage and bringing streams back to life. Rural Action has been working to treat acid mine drainage and reclaim abandoned minelands in Appalachian Ohio for more than 25 years. Rural Action’s Watershed Program creates innovative solutions to address water quality impairments in Appalachian Ohio. They assist communities with non-point source pollution issues like wastewater treatment and sedimentation, forge new collaborations to research endangered species, and even turn acid mine drainage into market-ready pigment.
Serving as a leader in stream restoration throughout Ohio’s coal region since 1994, Rural Action staff work in partnership with communities to provide watershed management services including chemical and biological water quality monitoring, watershed plan writing and review, restoration and protection project management, and community organizing around water resources, helping to ensure access to clean water across our region well into the future.
Watershed Planning and Reporting
For over 25 years, Rural Action has been providing data-driven watershed management. We work with federal, state, and local partners to develop and implement watershed management plans in rural Ohio. Learn more.
We focus on place-based education that gets kids and adults excited about the water around them. From field trips at local streams to stream side landowner workshops, our education offerings provide something for everyone. Do you know what watershed you live in? We’ll help you figure it out. Learn more.
Water Quality Improvements
Everyone deserves clean, drinkable, swimmable water. We work to help communities restore and protect their streams, no matter how big or small the project. See the impact we have made, and get ideas about projects you can help be a part of. Learn more.
Rural Action is a regional community development organization with a 32-county footprint working with members and community leaders on a range of quality of life, environmental, and economic projects across rural Appalachian Ohio. Its mission is to build a more just economy by developing the region’s assets in environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable ways. Learn more about Rural Action at www.ruralaction.org
True Pigments is a social enterprise of Rural Action, wholly owned by the non-profit, with the goal of making positive environmental and community impacts through our work and reinvesting business profits into more watershed restoration projects in Appalachian Ohio.