Environment

Eastern Kentucky has lost nearly 10,000 coal industry jobs in the past eight years, and the region is in the midst of a conversation about economic transition.

Decades ago, the Welsh coalfields underwent a similar evolution.

There, in the 1980s, the coal mining areas of Wales collapsed. More than 20,000 people lost their jobs in just five years. But since then, locals have moved the area away from coal, and the region’s economy has rebounded somewhat.

AFTERCOAL-MTN-BLACK-STREET-SIGN-RGBA new documentary looks at the Welsh experience and what lessons it could hold for Appalachia. Appalachian State University professor and filmmaker Tom Hansell has spent several years making “After Coal.”

I talked with him recently about the film and what Kentucky might learn from Wales’ reinvention. Listen to our conversation in the audio player above.

Here are a few things he learned:

  • In Wales, many thought the collapse of the coal industry would be the end of the region. “[The Welsh] thought it was the end of the world,” Hansell said. “They said, ‘we thought it was the end of the world, but in fact it was an opportunity to reinvent our community, to work on some of these issues in terms of health and the environment and to find a new way of doing business.’ That’s not to say it was easy, it took several decades.”
  • The second act for Wales has been made up of lots of different smaller industries. And that’s where Appalachia seems to be headed, too. But Hansell said at some point while making the film, he moved from looking for solutions from Wales that would directly apply to Kentucky, and looked instead at what keeps communities together. “There is, I believe, a positive legacy of the coal industry in terms of community, particularly left over from the labor movement,” he said. “This idea of people taking care of each other, working together in democratic fashion to solve problems and create new solutions, find new ways to do things. And I think that’s the story that brings us into the second act.”
  • But some ideas do translate. Hansell said one is environmental reclamation. The Welsh government invested heavily in hiring locals to clean up “coal tips,” or environmentally destructive piles of coal waste. “I think on a very simple level, one thing that Wales did fairly successfully that can actually apply to Appalachia is, they invested heavily in environmental reclamation,” Hansell said. “And that having clean water, for example, is a foundation for doing any kind of economic development or community development.”

Hansell is planning to continue the exchange between Wales and Appalachia. “After Coal” will have its Welsh premier at the end of May, and Hansell plans to return with a delegation of Welsh musicians and filmmakers and hold two presentations in Kentucky.

“After Coal” is showing at film festivals and universities in the region. It will air statewide on Kentucky Educational Television on April 18 at 9 p.m.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.