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Going to Waste: Coal mining leftovers may produce economic renewal at old mines

Published in WVU Magazine | Research 2023
Written by Pam Pritt
Photos by Brian Persinger

Richard Mine discharge into Deckers; photo by Brian Persinger
"The last insult to Deckers Creek" is about to be cleaned up by removing valuable minerals that fire up smart phones and flat screen televisions.

Paul Ziemkiewicz has been working to clean up streams for decades, but the discovery that acid mine drainage or AMD, holds the elements used in electronics has made that effort not only noble, but potentially profitable. The most valuable — neodymium, praseodymium, terbium and dysprosium — that make high-performance magnets and others that fire up flat screen televisions, smart phones and LED lights, can be found in the leftover gunk from coal mines that turns streams orange and sterile.

Ziemkiewicz, a self-described “water guy,” said acid mine pollution is the biggest water problem in the state. Deckers Creek is a good example of the generational trauma that West Virginia’s streams have endured.

Thirty years ago, the nearly 25-mile length of Deckers Creek ran red all the way from the headwaters to the Monongahela River. But work by the Friends of Decker’s Creek, WVDEP and WVU has restored most of the creek.

Now, the abandoned mine at Richard is the last big source of AMD. It dumps into the otherwise clean stream, where fish now glide beneath the surface — at least until they get to the pollution — and farther upstream from the mine, trout are making a comeback.

“It’s the last big insult to Deckers Creek,” Ziemkiewicz said of the plume of acid mine drainage that still flows into the larger stream. And it’s here where the concrete arch of a brand-new bridge and the hum of equipment signal that something is happening within sight of the cut stone entrance to the mine where generations of men crawled on their hands and knees to remove the coal from the 48-inch Freeport seam.

Abandoned in the 1950s, the huge expanse of the underground mine complex stretches from Dellslow, just east of Sabraton, to a hillside above Cheat Lake. As the sandstone formation above the mine entrance dips toward the west, so the does the coal seam below it.

Nearly extending to I-68, Ziemkiewicz said the mine below this point is flooded. The water looks clear as it rolls out of the large pipe adjacent to the entrance, but in a four-foot-deep concrete trench buttressed by blocks on each side, the iron oxides leave a thick, orange mass, warning of its toxicity.

“Rare earth mines are famous for having lots of environmental problems because you’re mining the whole ore body,” Ziemkiewicz said. “In typical ore deposits, radioactive elements like uranium and thorium join with the rare earth elements forming minerals that are hard to separate and then leave mildly radioactive tailings behind. It can make an environmental mess.”

Most of what the U.S. uses to produce electronics comes from China, the largest source of rare earth elements. Bringing home this manufacturing capability has good implications for the defense industry as well as high tech, Ziemkiewicz added.

And in this new, immense recycling project, those minerals will be managed in a process that begins with increasing the pH from below 3 to around 8 in a two-step process, allowing the non-valuable metals like aluminum and iron to settle at the bottom of a clarifier, to eventually be returned to a portion of the mine. The second clarifier will retrieve those valuable rare earth minerals.

“A lot of our technology revolves around that second cut of water, making what we call a ‘boutique sludge’ that has value, and we can get those concentrations up to 2%,” Ziemkiewicz said of the sludge currently coming from his plant at Mt. Storm, West Virginia. “We’re finding it’s really high grade, about the same concentration of rare earth elements you get in some of the best mines in the world. And it’s much easier to recover.”

The treated water will be returned to Deckers Creek.

It’s a partnership with West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees abandoned mine lands. The total project cost, including the land purchase, is more than $7 million with annual operation and management costs of $140,000. The return on investment is still unknown; Ziemkiewicz thinks it could realize a large portion of the annual expenses.;

“My estimates are that this particular site, at a minimum, would generate about $100,000 a year in revenue from the rare earths. It’s not a king’s ransom, but it takes a big chunk out of the operating and maintenance costs,” he said. “AMD is an interesting feedstock, and we keep finding more value, so our estimates keep going up, maybe half a million dollars a year?”

Click here to read in WVU Magazine.