Tom Eblen

Could hope for Kentucky’s post-coal economy lie across the Atlantic?

New film explores life 'After Coal'

The similar histories and challenges of Eastern Kentucky and South Wales are explored in a new film, After Coal.
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The similar histories and challenges of Eastern Kentucky and South Wales are explored in a new film, After Coal.

As Eastern Kentucky tries to create a more diverse post-coal economy, one good place to look for inspiration is across the Atlantic Ocean.

South Wales was a couple of decades ahead of Appalachia as the coal industry grew to fuel the industrial revolution of the 19th century. And it has retained that lead as changing economics and environmental realities have put the vast majority of coal miners in both places out of work.

The similar histories and challenges of Eastern Kentucky and South Wales are explored in a new film, After Coal, which will have its first Lexington screening at 7 p.m. Monday at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 East Main Street.

Filmmaker Tom Hansell will be there to discuss his film. Afterward, Welsh musicians Chris King and Nigel Jones will perform. Admission is free, but a $5 donation is suggested.

I caught up with them and Welsh filmmaker Richard Davies on Thursday morning at Third Street Stuff coffee shop. Hansell had just picked them up at Blue Grass Airport after their trans-Atlantic flight.

There is life after coal. There is hope.

filmmaker Richard Davies

They were on their way to Whitesburg, where After Coal will be screened Friday and King and Jones will perform Saturday as part of Appalshop’s Seedtime on the Cumberland Festival.

“There is life after coal,” Davies said when asked how Wales is making the transition. “There is hope.”

The work of Hansell, an assistant professor of Appalachian studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., built on decades of cultural exchanges between the two regions started in the 1970s by Appalachian scholars John Gaventa and Helen Matthews Lewis. He and his crew filmed After Coal on location over the past four years in Harlan County and the Dulais Valley of South Wales.

The film also uses archival footage to tell the two regions’ similar histories of coal’s boom and bust. Coal mines employed huge numbers of miners before the 1920s. Then mechanization began displacing tens of thousands of miners in both places, resulting in labor strikes and violence.

Britain nationalized its coal industry in 1947. But by the mid-1980s, Welsh mines couldn’t compete with cheap coal from apartheid South Africa. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government closed most of them, eliminating about 20,000 miners’ jobs.

Although Appalachia’s mines have always been privately owned, the job-loss trends were similar. In Eastern Kentucky, the culprits have been mechanization and, more recently, competition from Western coal, cheap natural gas and concerns about climate change and other environmental damage.

Wales’ economic transition has been helped by Britain’s social safety net, which includes national health care. The governments of Wales, Britain and the European Union have invested a lot of money cleaning up the environmental mess coal mining left behind. Both issues are challenges for Eastern Kentucky.

After explaining both regions’ histories, After Coal profiles people and organizations in both Wales and Harlan County working to rebuild their communities.

Environmental reclamation in Wales paved the way for Geraint Lewis to create Call of the Wild, an outdoor adventure and corporate leadership training business with 30 employees in a village of 2,000 people. It also helped Leigh Acteson start Glyncorrwg Ponds and Mountain Bike Centre, the centerpiece of a new tourism economy that brings 60,000 visitors a year to his area.

The film also profiles former Harlan County miner Shane Lucas, who now has a vegetable-growing business, and the Higher Ground project in Cumberland, which has helped build community through participatory theater and music.

Music and the arts have been keys to keeping communities strong in Wales, which has a long tradition of miners singing in men’s choruses. King is a singer/songwriter who remembers the big 1984 miners’ strike and whose grandfather was a leader in the National Union of Miners.

While Wales still has many economic development and employment challenges, King said, “I think we have turned a corner in the last four years.” Some of the keys have been education, job training and entrepreneurship.

In Eastern Kentucky, as in Wales, communities realize that coal won’t be replaced by another big economic engine — only lots of little ones, and that will take time, local leadership and strong communities.

“Having a strong culture also is a foundation for rebuilding,” Hansell said, and that is where music, theater and the arts play an important role. “Communities can survive if they keep those things going.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen