The challenges facing Appalachian coal mining communities in light of the industry’s ongoing struggles aren’t unique.
Thirty years ago, coal miners across the proverbial pond in Wales found themselves mired in a fight that would eventually signal an end to the industry, leaving them to ponder questions that Appalachian coal communities have begun asking themselves.
A public forum held last week at Appalshop in Whitesburg addressed how Wales transitioned its economy away from coal and whether these efforts might also work in a post-coal Appalachia.
Four panelists, including two individuals who witnessed and participated in Wales’s transition, discussed similarities and differences between the two communities.
Hywel Francis, a member of the British Parliament, who represents a steel community and former coal mining community, and wife Mair Francis, founder of the Dulais Opportunity for Voluntary Enterprise, or DOVE, participated. Other panelists included Evan Smith, with Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg, and Robin Gabbard, with Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky.
The October 7 forum was held in relation to a forthcoming documentary, “After Coal: Welsh and Appalachian Mining Communities,” produced by Appalachian State University’s Center for Appalachian Studies. The hourlong film will compare the Welsh and Appalachian coalfields, focusing especially on what will happen when “fossil fuels run out.”
Wales’s coal industry suffered a deadly blow following a yearlong strike in 1984-85 by the National Union of Miners. The British Broadcasting Corporation notes the strike began following an announcement that 20 pits were being shuttered, signaling the loss of 20,000 jobs.
Prior to the strike, Britain’s coal industry was publicly owned. Following the strike, Hywel Francis said the union dissolved and, by 1994, the industry had privatized. There are now only three deep mines remaining across the British coalfields, he said, and none remain in the Welsh coalfields. Thirty years ago, the industry employed 250,000 people. That figure is now less than 10,000.
The disappearance of these jobs resulted in repercussions that are all too familiar to Appalachia’s coalfields, including unemployment, low wages, and widespread health problems. Francis said the Welsh government helped address these issues by encouraging groups in the most deprived parts of Wales to forge private/public/ community partnerships in promoting programs of “economic and social regeneration.” The most successful programs, he noted, have involved efforts to bolster educational training and work skills to grow new business opportunities. The founding of several coal mining museums, DOVE’s work, and the emergence of tourism and recreation opportunities have benefited from this campaign and spurred new economic development.
Mair Francis noted that during the miners’ strike, women in the Miners’ Support Group in the Dulais Valley formed DOVE. The organization, according to its website, is focuses on “identify(ing) and support(ing) adults in the community seeking education, training and advice on business start-up.”
Francis said a generous investment was also made by the Welsh government and others to build a satellite campus of Swansea University to house the college’s science and engineering departments. This facility has become a research and development hub for major companies, including Rolls Royce, he noted.
Discovering whether these or other methods might help Appalachia won’t be an easy task, admitted Smith. He recalled leaving the region to attend college, determined to study economic development and find the answers to fix his home economy. He soon realized there is no simple fix, but there are tools that can help. Seeking insight from other places, like Wales, that have gone through a similar transition is one such tool.
A recurring theme during last week’s forum involved the need for better mining reclamation practices and the desire to resume ownership of the region’s resources.
Gabby Gillespie of Appalachia, Va., asked whether coal companies in Wales had done a better job at taking responsibility for reclamation. A concern here, she said, is that coal companies have not taken that responsibility, often going bankrupt and leaving communities the task of reclamation.
Francis noted that because Britain’s coal industry was publicly owned, it was required to “clean up after itself.” This doesn’t mean there weren’t issues. He recalled the October 1966 collapse of a coal “tip,” or spoil pile, in the Welsh village of Aberfan that killed 116 children and 28 adults. Following this disaster, Francis said the state government mandated that all spoil tips be cleared.
As for strip mining, he said the local government also mandates companies must “put back the land better than what it was, and it is always better.” He noted that he has actually lobbied to halt some strip mining within his constituency because the needs of the community and environment are far more important than “a handful of jobs” that are sometimes held by individuals who don’t live within the impacted communities. There have also been success stories associated with strip mining, and Francis said some companies have set up local funds to aid community projects. It depends on the nature of partnerships, and “sometimes it’s an exercise in local government and communities reminding them of their social and moral responsibilities to these local communities. It’s a long war of attrition, really.”
Several panelists agreed the key to moving the local economy forward comes from developing stronger educational attainment and work skills. School attendance is imperative for determining performance, said Francis. When the coal industry waned in Wales, miners demanded that factories begin arriving at their doorsteps to replace lost mining jobs. “That’s not going to be the case,” said Francis. “We live in a global economy and multi-national companies will not do that and shouldn’t do it. We need to ask the question, how do you revive or create a new economy that is quite different with probably lower levels of population.”
Smith said one of the biggest changes the Appalachian region has experienced is that high school graduates can no longer receive a well-paying job as a miner. “It’s a reality that most of the global economy has faced for a long time,” he said. “There’s not a lot of places in the world where you can make $75,000 on a high school degree.”
The need to restore lands scarred by mining for economic purposes was also cited.
Helen Lewis, often revered as the founder of Appalachian studies, said people must realize if the coal industry is waning, there is potential for new industries. “We need to look around and see what we’ve got that we can use.” One option, she said, lies within existing resources. Despite the coal industry’s decline, Lewis said companies still own a lot of land. She cited a recent discussion about expansion opportunities with MountainRose Vineyard in Wise. She was told the winery can’t acquire more land because coal companies will only lease it for a year. “I think we need to find a way to get our resources back.”
Another audience member asked how Appalachian communities can stop coal companies from wriggling out of reclaiming the land. “God built these mountains and what these coal companies leave us with is far from what God put there,” he said.
Francis admitted the scale of mountaintop removal in Britain is far less than what occurs in America, but this damage is also remedied. The issue in America, he continued, is that large parts of the society don’t like government intervention. He noted that Britain learned a lot from the U.S. including, for example, its installation of national parks. “That’s something that people should be proud of. The government is only working on behalf of the people and for prosperity. We shouldn’t see the land as ours, it’s for the future, isn’t it?” The removal of mountains is an “absolute disgrace,” and companies should bear responsibility in replacing what a community has lost “in better condition,” with it also being accessible to that community, he added.
Another audience member suggested responsibility for reclamation shouldn’t fall solely to Appalachia since all U.S. citizens have benefited from the low-cost energy its natural resources have yielded. Appeals must be made to the national government to help. Smith agreed that it is a national issue, and the federal government should be obligated to help get the region’s “economy back on speed.” He suggested the region must stop viewing Washington D.C. as part of the problem and start looking at it as part of the solution.
Katie Dunn is a reporter for The Coalfield Progress in Norton, Va., where this report originally appeared and is reprinted with permission.