Turning Acid Mine Drainage Pollution Into Pottery

  • Acid mine drainage is used to make pigments in the glaze for mugs and other tableware. The glaze has been tested for safety. Photo: Jennifer Szweda Jordan

  • Ryan Mahony, with Stream Restoration, Inc., sifts through iron oxide from acid mine polluted streams that will be sent to potters. Photo: J.S.Jordan

  • Margaret Dunn hopes that pottery made with acid mine drainage pollution can help the environment and the people of this region. Photo: Jennifer Szweda Jordan

June 13, 2014
First published December 13, 2013

This story is made possible with support from the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds.

The brilliant rust orange iron oxide that’s pulled out of waterways polluted with acid mine drainage is finding its way into the hands of artists and craftsmen.  The dried and powdered material is being used to color T-shirts, wood stain, concrete, and even the “burnt sienna” shade of Crayola crayons.  Now a nonprofit is helping turn creek contaminants into pottery glaze.

Margaret Dunn jokes that she's too old and tired for arguing.  

So when she figured out that the residue of acid mine drainage-polluted creeks could be used as a pottery glaze and the money from the sale of the arts could go back into watershed cleanups—she was beyond thrilled.

In 2005, Margaret Dunn happened upon a way to make the most of dried up clumps of iron oxide and manganese when her best friend, a potter, recognized that material that they were collecting in the systems where they were treating mine drainage could be used by potters.

"And I said, 'You can use this?' And she said 'Yes.' She made a few pieces.  Now we have seven potters that contribute—ceramic artists, I guess you would say.  And all the money from the sale of the material and the pottery goes to help watershed groups." 

Dunn works with Stream Restoration, Incorporated, in Mars, near Pittsburgh.  The organization helps about 20 watershed conservation groups keep their water treatment systems up and running.  They've pulled more than 20 tons of iron and manganese out of just a couple streams. 

When a system reaches an age where it’s getting clogged, or there’s too much manganese or iron in it, the group recovers the materials.  They shovel it, and it's a dirty process.  Then they spread it out and dry it.

Dunn says the recovered material used to make pottery glaze for everything from mugs to jewelry has been tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for safety.  

"If you’re taking a multivitamin, you’re taking iron and manganese.  When there’s too much iron, then fish can’t live. it tends to kill the stream," she says. 

Dunn has endless dreams for how the community could benefit from this material. She’s investigating whether organizations could get green building points for using the iron oxide and manganese in tile and concrete. When she thinks about the implications, Dunn actually gets choked up.

"I’m originally from southern West Virginia. And, there’s a lot of poverty down there, a lot of mine drainage. And anything to help the communities is what we wanna do," Dunn says.