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Water Research Institute director updates WV legislators on rare earth recovery efforts, urges law clarifying ownership

Article written by Mike Tony for Charleston Gazette-Mail
September 14, 2021

The long-term environmental problem of acid mine drainage in West Virginia could offer a long-term economic solution.

West Virginia Water Research Institute Director Paul Ziemkiewicz made that pitch recently to the state Joint Economic Development Commission. The institute is assessing the feasibility of scaling up acid mine drainage treatment technology to support a nationwide supply chain of valuable rare earth elements and critical minerals.

“What we’re aiming for is the ability to not only treat acid mine drainage, get the environmental improvements, but also get a revenue stream coming back,” Ziemkiewicz said.

Ziemkiewicz advised the commission to pass draft legislation he said the Water Research Institute is developing with the state Department of Environmental Protection to clarify who owns the resources resulting from treated acid mine drainage. Acid mine drainage forms when pyrite is exposed and reacts with water and air to form sulfuric acid and dissolved iron, which can form the orange and red sediments in the bottom of streams.

“We’re trying to treat acid mine drainage ahead of time before it gets into streams and, better yet, realize some revenue in the meantime,” Ziemkiewicz said.

The institute was awarded $5 million in 2019 by the federal Department of Energy to scale up recovery of rare earth elements from acid mine drainage sludge. Work includes construction of a facility at a new acid mine drainage treatment plant near Mount Storm. The DEP’s Office of Special Reclamation is the plant designer and builder, Rockwell Automation is providing sensor and control technology and TenCate Corporation is engineering materials for rare earth element extraction.

“We’re working on a process to basically take your small [acid mine drainage] treatment systems and turn those into rare earth recovery units,” Ziemkiewicz said.

The acid mine drainage treatment plant is under construction and was initially scheduled to begin operations by November. The pandemic has delayed delivery of needed materials and pushed the tentative completion date to January 2022, according to DEP acting spokesman Terry Fletcher.

The facility could treat 1,000 gallons of acid mine drainage daily. Nonvaluable solids removed during the clarification process would be pumped into storage plants, while valuable rare earth elements would be separated for further processing. The treated acid mine drainage then would be directed to the receiving stream.

To access the full article in The Charleston Gazette-Mail, click here.