There are many solutions to life after coal, and they start with supporting an ongoing conversation about how to create healthy communities in former coal-mining regions, author Tom Hansell said during a panel discussion Monday evening.
Hansell was joined by two other panelists at the event dedicated to life after coal for West Virginia: Caity Coyne of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and Nicholas Stump, a faculty member at the George R. Farmer Jr. Law Library at WVU. The panel was hosted at the WVU College of Law Event Hall and moderated by Ashton Marra, digital managing editor for 100 Days in Appalachia.
“I think it’s possible to be optimistic and realistic at the same time, and I think it’s important to ground our discussion of how to create a better future in Appalachia by looking at what other coal dependent regions have experienced,” Hansell said.
Hansell is the author of “After Coal: Stories of Survival in Appalachia and Wales.”
Hansell began by drawing some similarities between Appalachia and Wales, like geography, tight-knit mining communities and their traditions. He said through observation of mining regions in southern Wales, resources and strategies were found that would help Appalachian coalfield communities create a future beyond coal.
A major difference Hansell found between the two regions was that many profitable mines in Wales were privatized, and the mines that weren’t profitable because they were publically owned actually stayed in public ownership.
Today, a lot of property is owned by the forest commission and county governments in Wales, which means people can use a democratic process to access that property and use it for economic regeneration.
In the central Appalachian mountains, much of the property is privately owned.
“Between 50 percent and 70 percent of the land in the state’s southern coalfields is owned by absentee corporation, so that really limits what communities can do and what resources they have that they can access this kind of regeneration,” Hansell said.
He also explained that mine reclamation, or the process of restoring land, is important not only for the environment, but for the economy as well.
“Mine reclamation isn’t just to make things look pretty, but it’s improving water quality and that is really an essential element for a healthy community and a thriving economy,” Hansell said. “It’s difficult to attract business if you can’t drink the water. It’s very difficult to convince people to raise their children in a place where you can’t drink water, so figuring out ways to improve water quality I think is another key.”
The growing international concern of climate change also contributes to the downfall of coal and other fossil fuels, which directly impacts coal-producing regions in Appalachia, panelists said.
Panelists addressed the issues of reclamation, coal communities being left behind and what’s next for the coal mining communities.
Hansell explained that the 1977 Surface Mine Reclamation Control Act had a provision that when companies strip mine a land, a portion of the proceeds from the mining goes into an abandoned mine land fund that’s managed by the federal government to then be paid out to lands that have not been reclaimed.
“When the Surface Mine Reclamation Act became a thing in the ‘70s, there was language in this that you are supposed to return the land if you’re doing surface mining or mountaintop removal to the approximate original contour,” Coyne said. “That didn’t happen. Companies did not do those reclamation plans, and we are paying the price for that now as mining is stopping more and more as we’re seeing less of it. There are no plans in place for a lot of these places and what is in place are on the fly sort of solutions that are not thought out.”
Coyne also explained how coal communities feel abandoned by legislators and others within the state.
“Southern West Virginia built this state and we have forgotten them, and those people are feeling it every single day,” Coyne said. “Every effort they’ve tried to bring to legislators [or] to bring to people that might have some power gets left on the table in their eyes.”
She said there has been a change in how people discuss transitioning to a more sustainable future in Appalachia.
“There’s been a shift in conversation,” Coyne said. “You hear a lot more from boom and bust and less on just boom. You hear more about diversifying the economy. You hear more about those options of not just looking at diversifying, but looking at transitioning.”
People are becoming more open to a transition as they’re realizing the failings of the systems that exist, and they’re becoming more open as they realize how those failings affect them on a day-to-day basis, she said.