Benefit isn't usually a word that you associate with pollution.

Yet, West Virginia may be able to use some of its coal mining pollution to benefit the nation through the production of rare earth elements salvaged from acid mine drainage and acid mine sludge.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources met to discuss key minerals and elements that are essential for the nation to prosper and remain secure.

According to the United States Geological Survey, nearly 50 key minerals important to national security and to the U.S. economy come from a majority of foreign sources with 18 minerals on that list coming exclusively from foreign sources.

While some minerals come from allies, America's greatest economic adversary, China, holds a large lead in the production of minerals key to America's future.

With China controlling many of the elements key to making modern technology, there is work to be done in the United States and in West Virginia to try to turn the tide of American dependency on foreign materials.

West Virginia University's Water Research Institute has been researching the possibility of taking advantage of the rare earth elements in acid mine drainage.

Paul Ziemkiewicz, the institute's director, told the Senate committee that because the federal government is taking a lead, the nation is that much further in making a dent in its dependency on outside sources.

"This is almost a case study on how federal policy can lead innovation in areas that would never have been considered otherwise," Ziemkiewicz told committee senators.

A leading expert on acid mine drainage with 30 years researching its impacts around the globe, Ziemkiewicz testified that if the U.S. Department of Energy hadn't asked researchers to look at rare earth elements in acid mine drainage, it wouldn't have happened.

Ziemkiewicz is glad he was able to look.

According to the WVU researcher, his team has found concentrations of rare earth elements in acid mine drainage and sludge that rivals the best deposits found around the world.

"Not only is the concentration high, but the accessibility is high from a chemical point of view," Ziemkiewicz said.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said during Tuesday's committee meeting that the nation's lack of access to needed minerals has been decades in the making, while China has been investing and continues to invest in much-needed minerals and rare earth elements.

While those elements and minerals are much-needed resources for the production of modern devices like phones, LED lights, electric vehicles and advanced battery components, Manchin keyed into their importance in the production of equipment key to the national defense.

"The fact that China maintains a near monopoly on the critical components needed for our defense system makes no sense to me at all," Manchin said.

With access to the raw material lacking in the United States, Manchin said both the recovery of the resources and the refining of those resources by industry has to be key.

On the West Virginia Water Institute's work, Manchin said that everyone benefits.

"This offers a potential win for the environment, a win for the state (and) a win for the national security interests of our nation," the senator said.

Last year, WVU and the National Energy Technology Laboratory partnered together to open the Rare Earth Extraction Facility in Morgantown, which will explore the best ways to remove rare earth elements from acid mine drainage and the best way to capitalize off those elements.

Ziemkiewicz told the committee that he believes that as much as 800 tons of rare earth elements can be pulled from coal waste in central and northern Appalachia per year.

Although that number falls short of the 16,000 tons used by the American economy per year, it would be enough to support the U.S. defense establishment. 

Email: mcombs@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH

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