Editorials, Opinion

Turn AMD into cash

The Dominion Post reported Nov. 16 that the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Energy was briefed by Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of WVU’s Water Research Institute, on a budding system to extract rare earth elements from acid mine drainage.

Rare earth elements — or rare earth metals — are a family of elements that are key components in DVDs, cell phones and catalytic converters among other things, according to Geoscience News and Information. They are also an essential ingredient in rechargeable batteries — such as the ones in electric cars. Despite their name, REEs are abundant in the earth’s crust. However, they’re usually combined with other materials and don’t occur in large enough concentrations to make mining them worthwhile. That said, it appears REEs also occur in coal byproducts, such as AMD.

Researchers at WVU and their partners started with a pilot plant in Mount Storm, Grant County, and two questions: Can REEs be removed from polluted water and in large enough amounts to make the efforts economically feasible? And, is there a place for this technology in the national supply chain?

The answer seems to be “yes.”

For decades, China has dominated the REE market. As the largest producer and exporter of REEs, it has been able to set the price and control the supply chain.

But AMD is as prevalent in Appalachia as REEs are in China. Its rusty, orange residue on rocks and flowing into creeks is a familiar sight.

Ziemkiewicz’s presentation focused on the fact the technology exists and is ready to be implemented. But the project needs legislative help to determine who owns the AMD — and the REEs therein — and where the profits should go.

Department of Environmental Protection attorney Jason Wandling offered the committee a draft bill that says everything of value in the treatment may be used by the treating party or its designees for their commercial benefit, as we previously reported.

So if the Friends of Deckers Creek, for example, foots the bill for the treatment plant and REE extraction, the organization gets to sell the REEs and use the funds from the sale. If the state foots the bill, same deal.

West Virginia’s conservative government prefers private entities take on projects like this. But putting the onus on business is how we ended up with AMD-polluted water in the first place.

A report from the Ohio River Institute says West Virginia has 20% of the nation’s abandoned mine lands. The Office of Abandoned Mine Lands and Reclamation is chronically underfunded and only covers coal mines abandoned before 1977.  A look at an EPA map shows hundreds of abandoned mine areas — many of them leaking AMD. Plus, the bonds that coal companies pay   in the event of bankruptcy don’t cover even half the cost of reclamation.

Acid mine drainage treatment plants  outfitted to extract rare earth elements — while outputting clean water — are something West Virginia desperately needs. As the state weans its economy off coal production, these plants provide a way to make money from the industry’s byproducts. This is an economic and environmental opportunity the state can’t afford to sit on — even if it means the Legislature dips into the rainy day fund to get the projects started.