The coalfields of Appalachia are running out of coal, and there’s not a large-scale effort to diversify the region’s economy. But there are lessons to be learned from a similar transition in an unlikely place: the small United Kingdom country of Wales. Now, a documentary filmmaker is exploring parallels between 1980s Wales and modern-day Appalachia.
Tom Hansell is a former Kentucky resident and a documentary filmmaker at App State’s Appalachian Studies Center. In After Coal: Welsh and Appalachian Mining Communities, he’ll look for lessons from Wales’ transition away from coal that could be applicable in Appalachia.
“So often you hear about coal issues, particularly in Kentucky, as very emotional ‘jobs versus environment,’” he said. “And I think there are real reasons for that, but what I’m hoping to do in this project is actually look beyond that immediate conflict.
“Because we know that coal is a finite resource. So what I want to do is look beyond that and imagine a future after coal and use the Welsh experience to start people talking about ‘what can we do when the mines run out?’”
Up until the 1970s and 1980s, many regions of Wales were dependent on coal. When the mines began closing, unemployment rose to over 50 percent and poverty rates skyrocketed. Hansell says the Welsh government began the recovery by instituting programs to clean up the “coal tips,” or environmentally-destructive piles of coal waste.
“And what that did was improved water quality, improved health quality and improved opportunities for tourism, for people from the European cities that wanted to come out to the countryside,” he said.
Local women also started a community school to foster small businesses, and that effort is still going strong 30 years later. That’s a solution that Hansell thinks could translate to Appalachia. He says often people focus on bringing large factories and hundreds of jobs to the area, but a smaller-scale solution is more reasonable.
“And so that may often be small business startups,” Hansell said. “It’s not going to bring hundreds of jobs in and give a politician a big chance for a ribbon-cutting. But it will make for better, more sustainable more democratic communities in the small towns that make up the coalfields in Kentucky and West Virginia.”
Hansell is currently raising money for a trip to Wales to shoot video. In the documentary, which he expects to be completed next summer, Hansell plans to mix modern images and interviews with archival film—like tape of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard singing an Appalachian folk song to Welsh miners in 1975.
Hansell says Wales doesn’t have all the answers—the country still has higher-than-average unemployment and has lost population since the mines closed. But he sees lessons that can be learned from the Welsh experience, and wants to start conversations about a sustainable future for Appalachia after coal.