(This is part of a series of stories we are doing to commemorate Rural Action’s 30th anniversary. If you would like to be interviewed or to provide an essay on your Rural Action experiences, please contact us.)
Michelle Shively MacIver was walking through New York City in 2019 when she got a text from Raccoon Creek Watershed Coordinator Amy Mackey, who was doing fish sampling in Sunday Creek that day.
“I wish I was there,” Michelle said to Paul Patton, Rural Action Social Enterprise Director.
“You’re in New York City on your way to a present for the J.M. Kaplan Innovation Prize,” Paul replied, incredulous that his co-worker would sooner be wearing waders in an Ohio stream.
“This is cool, I know,” Michelle countered. “But I want to be fish sampling. They found a sand darter at the mouth of Sunday Creek!”
Fortunately, Michelle resisted the urge to drop everything and hop a plane back to Ohio. The presentation she and Paul gave won the award for True Pigments, a Rural Action social enterprise that emerged from the Watershed program and is planning a facility that will convert the iron oxide in acid mine drainage to pigment that can be sold for use in paint and other products.
“True Pigments has a proven technology, large potential environmental and social impact, a good scale-up plan, and a self-sustaining, credible team,” one of the prize application reviewers said of the project at the time.
Since then, Michelle, Director of Project Development for True Pigments, has been working to bring the project to fruition. She and Paul, who serves as True Pigments Director of Operations in addition to his Rural Action role, worked to purchase property in Truetown that includes the worst abandoned mine discharge in Ohio, producing 988 gallons of polluted water per minute — more than 2 million pounds of iron oxide per year.
While most real estate buyers would probably want to avoid something like this, it’s the perfect location for True Pigments. Michelle hopes to break ground on the facility in mid-2022 with operations projected to begin in early 2024.
“The thing I’m most excited about is that the day we start treating water at Truetown, we’ll be fixing the pH of the water going into Sunday Creek and capturing the iron,” Michelle says. “We’ll have an immediate impact on the water chemistry. That doesn’t mean the fish will come back the first day. There will be a recovery time. But we’ll be stopping the input of new iron. Hopefully we’ll see a pretty quick recovery.”
Another benefit of the project is the potential “greening” of the iron oxide industry. Currently, 84 percent of the iron oxide purchased in the United States is imported, with most of it coming from China. This domestic source of iron oxide will reduce its carbon footprint greatly by reducing the distance it is shipped.
Michelle first came to Rural Action in 2006 as a VISTA member working in the Huff Run Watershed. After her term ended, she spent a few years in Arizona before returning as a graduate student at Ohio University, where her master’s project focused on Pine Run, which feeds the West Branch of Sunday Creek.
She still remembers the day she started as a Rural Action staff member: Aug. 1, 2011.
“The first grant I had to write was due in November, and that was the watershed coordinator grant that paid my salary,” she says, noting it was a one-year grant. “I thought I might be around for only a year because of that. I had no idea that this would become a career and I’d be here so long.”
“I love Rural Action and I have since I was a VISTA,” she says. “It was great to see some of these projects through, to not only do the research as a graduate student but a year later as a staff member to get the work funded to build a doser at Pine Run. That kind of stuff doesn’t always happen in your career.”
Michelle learned much from then-Watershed Coordinator Mike Steinmaus. “He had such a focus on the community,” she says. “And it wasn’t just the watershed. In New Straitsville, he did a lot of work with the community.” Mike also had a great sense of humor. To prove it, Michelle pulls up a photo of him dressed as a superhero – Watershed Man.
“I’m inspired by all the work my colleagues at Rural Action do,” Michelle says. “It’s something special to go to a staff meeting and every single time be inspired by what someone is doing in one of the program areas. I’m just really grateful that I’ve been able to be part of that for so long and that I’ve had the opportunity to grow, too.”
Michelle says her faith plays a key role in her outlook and infuses her work.
“The call to steward our resources has always been strong in my life,” she says. “That I can merge that with what I do to get paid to do every day is pretty amazing. All the pieces of my life feel as if they’re moving toward the same goal – to make the world better.”
Her faith also filters into her view of the National Service program, where “we teach the members and send them out into the world to teach others.”
“The AmeriCorps program means a lot to me,” Michelle says. “I see 10 years of AmeriCorps members and the really cool things they’re out there doing. Even if it’s a small piece of what shaped them, Rural Action has had an impact on them, how they view the world, how they view this part of the world, and their views of poverty and economic development.”
Where will True Pigments be when Rural Action’s 35th anniversary rolls around?
“We’re going to be in the pigment business,” Michelle says. “I hope we’ll be selling pigment to big-name buyers and our material will be in products people use in their homes.”
She hopes by then 8 to 10 people will be employed by the social enterprise and she’ll be looking for a location for the next True Pigments facility.
“I also expect there will be fish in that stretch of Sunday Creek.”