published Saturday, February 9th, 2013

Scars have faded at old coal mines in Fabius, Ala.

Old coal mining pits near Fabius, Ala., have morphed into ponds.
Old coal mining pits near Fabius, Ala., have morphed into ponds.
Photo by Tim Omarzu.

FABIUS, Ala. — Sharon Thomas thinks her mountain gets a bad rap.

She's a fifth-generation resident of Fabius, a remote community high on a ridge above the Tennessee River in a sparsely populated part of Jackson County, Ala.

"I was raised here," Thomas said. "This used to be one of the most pristine communities that you'd ever want to see."

A few months ago, the phrase "Fabius coal mines" was in the headlines -- and the news was bad.

Michael Harden, a 25-year-old Scottsboro, Ala., man, went missing during a dirt bike ride and was found drowned Oct. 30 after a five-day search.

"We didn't see any signs of foul play," sheriff's office Chief Deputy Rocky Harnen said last week.

"We're still waiting on the toxicology report. Takes about six months now, the way they're backlogged," Harnen said.

After Harden's death, deputies stepped up patrols near Fabius and arrested half a dozen young adults in late November on drug and drinking charges.

Thomas, who's spent all but five of her 64 years in Fabius, blames most of the bad that happens there on outsiders looking for a secluded place to do wrong.

"It's people from other places that think they can come out here and get away with murder," she said. "That's the people that do that kind of stuff, and we get blamed for it."

Thomas has poked through trash dumped on her property and traced it to people from Georgia and Tennessee. With a pistol in one hand and a cellphone in the other, in 2001 she caught two men from Florida who were cooking methamphetamine in her woods.

Troublemakers are less common now, Thomas said, partly because road closures have made it harder to sneak into the former coal-mining area.

"It's gotten better, a lot better," she said. "This sheriff we've got now, he's a good guy."

Wetlands and mines

A coal mining company that owned more than 4,000 acres near Fabius in the 1970s went bust and left unreclaimed strip-mining pits and spoil piles.

Thomas wasn't happy about that, or that Chattanooga in the 1990s trucked tons of sewage sludge from its wastewater treatment plant at Moccasin Bend to Fabius as part of mine reclamation.

There's still some strip mining in rural Jackson County, but state officials make sure that coal companies save the topsoil and seed it during reclamation.

"The state really, really stays on them now. They have to go by the book," Thomas said. "When they mine, it's got to be back where it was -- or even better."

Fabius earned a footnote in history as the first place where the Tennessee Valley Authority built wetlands to address acid mine drainage, the acidic water that flows from some abandoned coal mines and tailings.

TVA took ownership of the coal mining company's thousands of acres in the 1970s, after the company defaulted on its agreement to supply coal to the nearby Widows Creek power plant, TVA spokesman Mike Bradley said.

"TVA over the next couple of decades did some extensive remediation," Bradley said.

"These constructed wetlands have been real successful," he said. "They're a natural solution, and they're long-term."

The utility has sold the coal mine property. People have built houses on the land, and some of it is used by hunting clubs.

The mining scars have faded.

Pine trees grow now on old tailings piles, and clear water has turned former mining pits into ponds.

"It's beautiful over there," said Jackson County Commissioner Tim Guffey, who represents the Fabius area.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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