Modern Day Alchemy: New Help for Treating Acid Mine Drainage

Posted on March 11, 2020 by Robert Uram

Two promising new technologies—recovery of rare earths from acid mine drainage (AMD and conversion of AMD treatment by-products to paint pigments are bringing new hope to remediating AMD polluted streams. These technologies are a kind of modern day alchemy—restoring streams that are orange and lifeless by turning pollution into economically valuable products and creating new jobs for local economies. The development of economically viable treatment processes is a game changer for AMD treatment with potentially huge benefits for national security, local economies, and restoration of the health of thousands of miles of now lifeless streams.

Rare Earth Recovery

West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute director, Paul Ziemkiewicz, PhD, has been at the forefront of researching AMD issues and developing AMD remediation techniques for decades. Dr. Ziemkewicz has developed a process that can extract rare earths from AMD.  As explained more fully in Rare Earths Funded, last fall he received a 5 million dollar grant from the Department of Energy to build a pilot plant in conjunction with the WVDEP that will extract rare earths while treating 500 gallons of AMD per minute. Dr. Ziemkewicz estimates that AMD flows could be the source of as much as 2200 tons of rare earths a year.

Rare earths are a critical component in many products including cell phones.  Rare Earths Funded explains that, “Rare earth metals consist of the 17 chemically similar elements at the bottom of the periodic table, such as cerium and scandium. Despite their name, they're not "rare" because they're often found in other minerals, within the earth's crust or, in this case, in coal and coal byproducts.” Most of the 20,000 tons of rare earths we use are imported, mainly from China. The initial plant will be located on Abrams Creek, a tributary to the North Branch of the Potomac River and will benefit at least 17 miles of stream.

Paint Pigments

Rural Action is a watershed organization that has been involved in restoring AMD damaged streams since 1991. Recently, they have partnered with Ohio University Professor Guy Riefler, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to develop a process that transforms iron from AMD into marketable paint pigments in a process called True Pigments, https://www.ohio.edu/news/2019/12/acid-mine-drainage-cleanup-plant-moves-closer-full-scale-thanks-3-5m-award. They have received a 3.5 million dollar grant from the OSMRE to partially fund the development of a treatment plant. The initial plant will treat a large discharge in the Sunday Creek watershed in Athens County, Ohio, that pollutes a seven-mile stretch of Sunday Creek with 2.2 million pounds of iron each year.

The True Pigments process treats polluted water, removing iron oxide, to yield a commercial grade of iron pigment, which can be used in paint production. The United States uses about 224,000 tons of paint pigment each year, most of which is imported from China.  The first True Pigments plant is anticipated to meet one percent of that supply.  Rural Action is still seeking an additional four million dollars needed to build the treatment facility.

In the past 25 years, with the active support of dozens of watershed groups like Rural Action and Friends of the Cheat River in West Virginia and state and federal agencies, hundreds of projects have been implemented and many hundred miles of AMD-polluted streams have been brought back to life. Formerly dead streams are now brimming with fish and other aquatic species. Local communities have the benefit of clean water.

The bulk of the funding for these restoration projects has come in the form of grants to State Abandoned Mine land programs from Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act’s Abandoned Mined Land Fund and from EPA’s Clean Water Act Section 319 grant program. These funding sources are simply insufficient to address the vast scope of AMD problems (which are only a part of the overall need to address the health and safety and other environmental effects from abandoned coal mines).  In addition, new revenue to the Abandoned Mined Land fund is currently scheduled to expire in 2021.

The rare earth and True Pigment processes can help address the funding shortage by providing an additional, independent source of funding for AMD remediation. They will be important tools in the decades to come as the battle continues to restore more than 7000 miles of streams polluted by AMD from abandoned coal mines continues in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama.

Little Bear Run, Pennsylvania (Before and after Treatment)

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Cat on a Hot Stove-Lid: What We Should Learn from the Gold King Mine Spill

Posted on December 22, 2015 by Zach C. Miller

Mark Twain once wisely warned:

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it -- and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits on a hot stove‑lid.  She will never sit on a hot stove-lid again -- and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more.

While trying to clear the collapsed entrance to the inactive Gold King Mine in Colorado, EPA contractors in August 2015 inadvertently released over 3 million gallons of metal-laden wastewater into a tributary of the Animas River.  Partly because of EPA’s involvement, and partly because high iron levels turned the Animas River orange for several days, the incident generated considerable controversy and attention.

Subsequent views about what we should learn and do as a result of this spill have been quite divergent and, in this writer’s view, off the mark. 

As might be expected during this election season, one response was protracted administration-bashing Congressional hearings, aimed at the heads of both EPA (criticizing the Agency for not better controlling its contractor at this remote mountain site) and the Department of the Interior (which has no responsibility for the site but issued a requested report on the spill).  Not surprisingly, these blame-and-shame hearings were not focused on, and did not produce, constructive information or plans for preventing such events in the future.  However, they did cause EPA remedial efforts and related U.S. transactions at inactive mine sites to be put on hold, which was counter-productive for dealing with this problem. 

At the other extreme, some environmental advocates have asserted that this wastewater release from an inactive mine supports their view that U.S. mining law should be fundamentally overhauled, including to provide for substantial royalty payments to the government and imposition of major financial assurance requirements on miners under CERCLA Section 108.  Those calls ignore the fact that this historic site pre-dates subsequently adopted mine reclamation and bonding requirements imposed on current mines under state and federal law.  They also represent a sea-change in mining law that goes far beyond this inactive mine issue, would occur at a difficult economic time for the mining industry, and is unlikely to gain traction in this polarized political climate. 

Congressional reactions reflect those widely disparate positions, with new proposed bills ranging from a narrow proposal for grants to mining colleges to study the problem (H.R. 3734) to a broad mining reform act that imposes substantial new fees and royalties (H.R. 963).  One other proposed bill would freeze DOI’s Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Program at $17 million per year and institute a “Good Samaritan” program to encourage third-party volunteer clean-ups at AMLs (H.R. 3843), and another would create a foundation to accept donations for AML cleanups, with one-time matches from the federal government of up to $3 million per year (H.R. 3844). 

Many of these proposals are either political posturing or over-reaching, and others do not focus on or effectively address the problem of abandoned mines.  Moreover, they either are unlikely to go anywhere in Congress, or would accomplish little if they do.  

However, there are effective steps we should take if we learn the following key lessons provided by the Gold King spill:   

·         There are tens of thousands of abandoned mines like Gold King that are already discharging polluted wastewater to thousands of miles of streams.  If we do nothing, such discharges will continue and worsen, and occasional blow-out releases like Gold King are inevitable. 

·         The damage and economic impacts caused by these abandoned mine sites are real and will increase. 

·         These mine sites are very complex and expensive to fix. 

·         Some states and volunteer entities are willing to address these sites if existing liability disincentives can be removed.

Given these circumstances, we should focus on practical approaches that will achieve real, near-term, on-the-ground remedial actions.  Furthermore, the approaches must be backed by meaningful sources of funding, and be politically achievable in the current, polarized political climate. 

A good start would be adopting an effective “Good Samaritan” law addressing the existing disincentives for third parties to remediate abandoned and inactive mine sites, coupled with meaningful federal funding initiatives.  The Keystone Policy Center is currently working to achieve consensus on such an approach. 

A second practical approach would be to use CERCLA National Priority List (NPL) designation at select sites to provide funding where no viable mine operators remain.  The Gold King incident has served as a catalyst for removing past local opposition to NPL listing for the upper Animas River drainage.  That’s a good beginning. 

We should heed Twain’s advice and use the real lessons of Gold King to move beyond politics and take practical steps like those noted above to start fixing these old mine sites.  And we should stop getting mired in the same, currently dead-end debates that lead to doing nothing and can be put aside for another day – lest we be like the cat that will never sit on a cold stove-lid.

Encouraging the Use of Abandoned Coal Mine Drainage for Hydraulic Fracturing in Pennsylvania through a Good Samaritan Statute

Posted on June 21, 2012 by Chester Babst

The development of natural gas shale formations, such as the Marcellus and the Utica in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, requires reliable sources of water for hydraulic fracturing that makes gas extraction from tight shale possible.  In Pennsylvania―a state with relatively plentiful ground and surface water sources―there are water sourcing challenges presented by various regulatory frameworks as well as withdrawal limitations in sensitive headwater areas of the state that coincide with current oil and gas activities. 

One alternative to using fresh water for hydraulic fracturing is the use of water supplies affected by acid mine drainage (AMD), which are also plentiful in Pennsylvania.  While the use of AMD by the oil and gas industry offers many potential benefits, operators are reluctant to become entangled in long-term liabilities created by the current legal framework for such pre-existing contamination.

Recognizing the need to encourage the treatment of abandoned AMD, Pennsylvania adopted the Good Samaritan Act, 27 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 8101 et seq., in 1999 to provide liability relief for various stakeholders, volunteers and watershed groups to undertake cleanup efforts of pre-existing contamination from AMD.  One recent legislative proposal would amend the Act to allow relief from liability for the use of mine drainage, mine pool water, or treated mine water for the development of a gas well.  This amendment, which has bi-partisan support in the Pennsylvania legislature, provides relief from third party claims as well as enforcement under various liability schemes.

On a parallel track, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) has been investigating means by which it could encourage the use of AMD by oil and gas operators.  See PADEP’s draft White Paper: Utilization of AMD in Well Development for Natural Gas Extraction, November 2012.  PADEP is engaging in ongoing discussions with stakeholders regarding possible processes and solutions for the treatment, storage, and liability issues associated with such an undertaking. 

At the federal level, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed a Good Samaritan Initiative to protect volunteers from liability for the remediation of drainage from abandoned hard rock mines.  EPA’s program, however, does not encompass coal mine drainage, which is the primary source of AMD in Pennsylvania.  Short of legislative changes to the Clean Water Act or CERCLA to protect operators from potential liability, an expansion of EPA’s initiative to encourage the use of AMD for hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania would provide greater confidence to the oil and gas industry that both state and federal agencies are willing to provide appropriate relief to encourage the use of AMD.

While it seems like a win-win-win for the environment, industry and the Commonwealth, it remains to be seen if workable solutions will be found to encourage the use of AMD while limiting long-term liability related to that use.