Getting the orange out – Ohio artist shares insights with mine site restoration experts at the Wright Opera House

The Uncompahgre River is typically a yellowish color due to high metal concentrations from the highly mineralized mountains and abandoned hard-rock mines upstream. This summer it ran deep orange several times due to the heavy rains that sent even more sediment flowing into the river between Ouray and Ridgway. Similarly, streams in southeastern Ohio run orange throughout the year due to acidic mine drainage from abandoned coal mines.

Artist and university professor John Sabraw turns the powdered iron minerals in Ohio into working paints, used in his art as well as distributed to artists around the world. Sabraw will give the keynote talk, “Pollution to Paint: Remediation as Entrepreneurial Endeavor,” at the Wright Opera House in Ouray Imageon Thursday, Sept. 29. As part of the Reconnect & Reboot meetup, organized by the San Juan Mining & Reclamation Conference committee, he will share insights and answer questions about his process of turning pollution into paint, the benefits of having an artist’s mind on a team, and why an artist is dealing with scientists anyway.

Describing the pollution problem he is seeking to alleviate, he explained, “In one local seep, over one million gallons per day of polluted water enters Sunday Creek. This water has a final pH below 2 and over 2,000 pounds of iron per day. It is like junking a car in the stream every day.”

His talk will be prefaced by short updates on mining and reclamation plans and policy issues in the San Juan Mountains, which face similar water quality problems from draining mines. The evening at the Wright includes a reception with exhibits and afternoon open houses at The Western hotel and Ouray Hydroelectric Plant, and is part of a two-day annual event organized by local watershed nonprofits.

On Friday, Sept. 30, event registrants will be exploring mine site restoration projects up Red Mountain Pass and Camp Bird Road. While most registrants are involved in restoration as consultants, suppliers, mining companies, universities, nonprofit organizations and government agencies, the public is invited and welcome to attend and gain a better understanding of the economy and environment in southwest Colorado.

Pat Willits of the Trust for Land Restoration, a guide on one field trip, said, “I look forward to the San Juan Mining and Reclamation Conference every year.  I come for the presentations and the updates but stay for the conversation and the field trips.  I used to think I was alone and the only one who cared about this kind of stuff. Now I’ve got friends and connections with diverse interests and backgrounds that I would never have had otherwise.”

Reconnect & Reboot, Sept. 29 and 30, is the twelfth annual event organized by the San Juan Mining and Reclamation Conference committee, including the Mountain Studies Institute, Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership, San Miguel Watershed Coalition, and Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining & Safety.

The 2022 sponsors include Newmont, Colorado Dept. of Public Health & Environment, CDM Smith, Frank L. Massard Trust, Heritage Environmental Services, North Wind, HDR, NewFields, Rocky Mountain Bio Products, San Miguel Power Association, and Schnabel Engineering, as well as ACZ, Colorado Mining Association, Ensero, Triton Environmental, Trout Unlimited-Gunnison Gorge Anglers, Trout Unlimited- Reclamation, and Trust for Land Restoration.

For conference information, go to