You gaze at a vibrant collision of color. Are you looking at the Earth? Is this bacteria under a microscope? Is it a distant galaxy through the lens of a telescope? Or could it be a rainbow of unique pigments created from none other than a stream of coal mine pollution? As it turns out, this series of art by John Sabraw reflects many meanings, and it symbolizes a deep commitment to the planet. You see, the art is in fact made using pigments derived from the iron oxide in acid mine drainage. In beautiful southeastern Ohio, an area lush with trees and rolling hills dotted with small towns throughout, defunct coal mines have left their mark on the environment years after their closures. But a group of artists, engineers and dedicated community members are finding ways to clean up the pollution and turn it into something meaningful.

Continue reading below
Our Featured Videos
Sabraw in a stream in a cave

A stream of pollution

Back around 2007, Sabraw, an artist and professor at Ohio University, began working with a local environmental group after years of working with environmentalists and scientists on various projects. The group, called Kanawha, toured southeastern Ohio, and Sabraw was instantly struck by the smelly, red-orange pollution in many of the region’s streams. 

Related: #degrowth art series exposes greenwashing in the food industry

orange stream

“This is mainly iron oxide, that is the heavy metal polluting the stream,” Sabraw told Inhabitat. “Most of the earth-based pigments I use are made of iron oxide, so I took some with me and played with them in the studio. This is the first time I started thinking this could be turned into pigments or paint product.”

Riefler holding jug of polluted water while standing next to a stream

As it turns out, another Ohio University professor, Guy Riefler, was already using his skills as an environmental engineer to turn the iron oxide from the acid mining drainage into paint. The two professors connected and began working on a new project together that would both create a viable product and clean up the streams: a win-win.

aerial view of orange streams in a forest

What is acid mine drainage?

But where is all of this iron oxide coming from, and why is it a problem? “It comes from abandoned and improperly sealed coal mines,” Sabraw explained. There are many abandoned coal mines not just throughout southeastern Ohio but around the world. When it rains, water leaches into these underground mines, where it picks up heavy metals before finding its way to the surface and draining into aquatic habitats.

Aquatic life is very sensitive to pH. They want to be around 7 pH or even lower on occasion, but acidic water is around pH 2 to pH 4,” Sabraw said. “They can’t live in that environment. The second thing is iron oxide gets to the surface of the water and is activated by sunlight. There is more oxygen in the atmosphere. Instead of dissolving, the iron becomes crystalized onto the creekbed. That covered creekbed inhibits growth; very few things can live in that.”

volunteers getting iron oxide out of stream water

Saving aquatic life

That’s what makes the project so crucial. Removing the iron oxide will help return the streams to their natural state, where aquatic life can thrive. With iron oxide present, you’re unlikely to find any fish swimming around in these streams. So Sabraw, Riefler and groups of volunteers visit Appalachian streams to collect iron oxide and turn it into something useful. On a small scale, they go collect the iron oxide deposits on creek beds, then wash and purify it before neutralizing the acidity. The result? A product that is over 98% pure iron oxide with very few contaminants. The iron oxide is cooked at extremely high temperatures to remove any remaining biomatter.

They are also working on building a multi-million dollar facility that can mimic this collection and purification process on a much larger scale. In fact, the goal is to produce pigments that they can sell to generate enough money to cover the cost of pollution cleanups. Another goal is to insert pumps in the old mines that will access the iron oxide before it ever leaves the source. Clean, safe water will then be returned to the streams and creeks.

diagram explaining how to turn iron oxide pollution into pigment and clean water

Cleaning up for the community

There can sometimes be a disconnect between the local community and those affiliated with the university. But luckily, that hasn’t been the case with this project. Sabraw, Riefler and their team hope the planned facility will create local jobs and clean up the streams, where families can fish and play. The facility will double as an educational center and will include a wetland sculpture park that will even display the impacts of climate change, particularly during seasonal flooding. The local response has been overwhelmingly positive. “[These communities] remember when they played in clean creeks and fished for dinner. They remember it changing, becoming orange and acidic; they’d jump in to swim and come out with orange underwear,” Sabraw said. “This is not some place that they are skipping in to do a job and leave. This is home, this is heart.”

Their work has also garnered international attention. “More than anything else, artists want to know how they can do something similar, take the ability to think differently, spatially, and apply it to issues in our world.”

blue and tan circular artwork

Pollution becomes art

Sabraw has used the iron oxide pigments in his own series of artworks, which feature mesmerizing, swirling patterns of color confined within circles. Aside from the direct inspiration from the polluted streams, Sabraw approaches his work with a sustainable mindset.

dark blue and orange circular artwork

“We are in a critical era,” Sabraw told Inhabitat. “There’s no time left to decide that we want to work to consciously and purposefully create a sustainable future for humans on this planet. My concerns surround the ways I can attack this myself and open my abilities up to other experiences and ideas to collectively create a new way of living on the planet together.” The art showcases how many things on this planet are happening simultaneously to create “a sense of wonder, openness and also mystery and a question of purpose.”

Sabraw painting on canvas

Making a difference one stream at a time

Beyond the art, Sabraw and Riefler hope the project expands beyond the borders of Ohio and across not just the country but the globe. While streams worldwide may have varying chemistries, the technology could be applied to abandoned mines everywhere.

If you’re sitting there wondering whether or not to focus your own work on sustainability, Sabraw says, without a doubt, to do so. “There’s a funny phrase that if you are the smartest person in a room, you are in the wrong room. I’ve never been in the wrong room. I’m not the smartest guy ever. Artists need to decide they can be in a space that is uncomfortable and still have a major impact on how things happen.”

+ John Sabraw

Photography by Ashley Stottlemyer, Ben Siegel, John Sabraw and Gamblin via John Sabraw