For many rivers and creeks in the foothills of southeastern Ohio, the clear, cold water is only a memory. Thanks to decades of coal mining, these creeks are full of acidic wastewater runoff. Instead of being clear or even blue-green, the waters are orange, bright yellow, or sometimes a milky white.
In an attempt to restore these streams, polluted and then abandoned like the coal mines themselves, Ohio engineer Guy Riefler and local artist John Sabraw have collaborated on a plan to turn the poison into paint. The result are vibrant paintings made from repurposed coal mine sludge that will take your breath away before they break your heart.
The dirty practices of the coal mining industry are fairly well known today, but before 1977, there were no regulations requiring mining companies to clean or contain their wastewater. This sludge, full of iron, bauxite, sulfuric acid, and other deadly trace metals flowed right out of the mines and into the creeks and rivers of the surrounding communities. And though the mines are closed now, it’s still flowing.
“A million gallons per day of highly acidic high iron content pours into a creek nearby–and the creek is bright orange,” environmental engineer and Ohio University professor Guy Riefler told Fast Company. Tired of watching this destruction continue unabated, Riefler came up with an economically viable idea to clean up the river: turn the poison into paint.
Over the last five years, Riefler and a team of graduate students have lugged buckets of brightly colored coal sludge into the lab, looking for a way to refine the wastewater into a pigment that artists would want to use. The idea is to make enough money selling the paint to operate a wastewater treatment plant near the most polluted creeks. The paint is nearly ready for the market, consisting of 97 percent iron and available in a wide range of hues.
But just creating the paint isn’t enough. To test the viability of the repurposed paint idea, Riefler reached out to local artist John Sabraw. Long interested in combining sustainability and art, Sabraw seized upon the opportunity to help and has since incorporated the coal sludge paint into large canvas paintings that serve as a haunting echo of their origins. The paintings, many of which resemble planets or estuaries, are both a reminder of the permanent marks our quest for cheap energy has made on the Earth, as well as a hope that we may still have time to clean up our mess, and restore nature to its former beauty.
Click on the thumbnails below to see more of Sabraw’s art.