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.
Rare earth elements are a group of 17 metallic elements whose magnetic, electrochemical and other properties make them key components of cellphones, televisions, computer hard drives and other electronic devices as well as defense applications, including lasers and radar and sonar systems.
Rare earths are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, but minable concentrations are less common than for most other mineral commodities, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Former President Donald Trump issued an executive order in 2017 defining critical minerals as essential to U.S. economic and national security.
The United States had 1.5 million metric tons of rare earth elements in reserve as of January — 3% of China’s total reserves, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.
With the U.S. trying to get ahead in the rare earths market, Ziemkiewicz said, he has sensed an opportunity for West Virginia.
“We certainly want to have the central concentrate for the whole United States and hopefully central Canada coming [to West Virginia], and then this would be our major supply of rare earth elements and critical minerals for the United States,” Ziemkiewicz said. “It may sound grandiose, but what the heck? Think big, realize big.”
Researchers still are seeking to determine whether they “actually have a commercial process, and if not, what we have to do about it,” James Wood, director of the West Virginia University Energy Institute, told the commission. “We’ll get to the point of talking about commercialization once we see the data lead us in that direction.”
Ziemkiewicz’ water institute is a program of the WVU Energy Institute.
Money to support the strained state Special Reclamation Fund is another potential benefit from rare earth element recovery, Ziemkiewicz said.
A report released in June by the state Legislative Auditor’s Office Post Audit Division warned state mine cleanup funds are nearing insolvency.
“So what do we need to do to make West Virginia a leader in this area? Technology is one thing. Legislation and policy are another thing,” Ziemkiewicz said. “That’s where you good people come in.”
Ziemkiewicz recommended state lawmakers embrace legislation the Water Research Institute and the DEP have worked on together stating that whomever treats acid mine drainage also owns any valuable elements coming from the drainage.
“What we want to do is advance this legislation that would say that whoever treats the acid mine drainage, whoever takes on the environmental liability of treating acid mine drainage, ultimately gets the benefit of any attractive feedstocks,” Ziemkiewicz said.