Romania’s Jiu Valley Looks at Life After Coal

by Tom Hansell, After Coal director.

I recently travelled to the Carpathian mountains of Romania to present the After Coal project at a conference titled Appalachians/Carpathians: Researching, Documenting, and Preserving Highland Traditions.

Like many Americans, I knew little about the Carpathian mountains, the range that stretches across Central Europe, including parts of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, and most of Romania.  At the conference, biologist John Akeroyd from the Adept foundation described the region as “the last of old world Europe” and a hotbed of biodiversity. The fact that Romania was part of the Soviet controlled Eastern Bloc until their 1989 revolution means that many rural areas are not developed.  Horse drawn carts and handmade haystacks are still a common sight in the countryside.

Overlooking a coal mine in the Jiu Valley. Photo by Gabriel Amza

However, the Soviets also built immense industrial centers in parts of Romania. The Jiu valley is a coal-mining region on the edge of the Carpathians. Under Soviet control, the largest mine employed tens of thousands of workers. After the revolution, the mines were privatized and workers lost their jobs. Declining coal markets and international competition mean that the last mine in the Jiu Valley closed in October of 2015.

At the Appalachians/Carpathians conference I presented After Coal along side Romanian photographer Gabriel Amza, who has spent years documenting the Jiu Valley for a project he calls Genius Loci – or spirit of place. Genius Loci is beautifully haunting work that captures the despair and abandonment that many mining communities feel, without resorting to stereotypes.

Gabriel Amza explained some of the complexities of his project to me:

cleaning the locker room of a mine in Romania's Jiu valley
Cleaning the locker room of a mine in Romania’s Jiu valley. Photo by Gabriel Amza

I think coal is dirty. But, coal is an important part of our recent history. And the reason projects such as Genius Loci and After Coal are important is that just because coal is dirty reality, it shouldn’t be forgotten. We need to remember where these communities started. It’s not always a pretty beginning, but it’s a necessary part of the story.

Where they go from here? It’s the communities own business, and their responsibility to create a new future. But it’s up to us to document these things because other people aren’t going to do it, and not everyone wants to remember the dirtiness of coal.”


As Gabriel and I discussed the situation in the Jiu Valley, we agreed that the outlook in Romania’s Jiu Valley is bleak when compared to central Appalachia or South Wales. Although Romania’s economy has improved since joining the European Union, the national economy is much weaker than the US or UK, and fewer resources are available to reclaim mines, retrain workers, or regenerate coalfield communities.  The cycle of deindustrialization has hit the Jiu Valley much later than Wales or Appalachia.

By discussing similarities and differences among coal mining regions in Appalachia, Wales, and Romania, this kind of international exchange can help provide people in each region valuable insight. Opening up a dialogue between coalfield residents can inspire communities to create their own solutions for a future after coal.

For more information about photographer Gabriel Amza’s Genius Loci project, go to

To see Amza’s photos of the last shift in the Petrilla mine, go to

Catch a Work in Progress Screening this Fall!


As the After Coal team wraps up editing, we are seeking feedback from participants and community members. We hope you will join us at a work in progress screening to take part in discussion, and to be part of a collaborative filmmaking process.

Here is what we have lined up so far. Check Facebook or Twitter for more details:

September 23, 7pm – Boone, NC – Appalachian State University 

September 24, 7pm – Radford, VA – Radford University

September 24, 8pm – Fayettevile, WV – Create WV Conference 

October 7 – Brasov, Romania – Appalachian-Carpathian Conference at Transilvania University of Brasov

October 21 – Charleston, WV – West Virginia International Film Festival

October 30 – Durham, NC – Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University 

November 4, 7pm – Morgantown, WV – West Virginia University

Music of After Coal featured in Southern Spaces online journal.

We are honored that a multi-media essay produced by the After Coal team has just been published in Southern Spaces, an interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 11.52.09 AMThis title of this short piece, Keep Your Eye Upon The Scale is drawn from the song known as “Miners’ Lifeguard” or “Miners’ Song” a union anthem sung in both Appalachia and Wales.   Keep Your Eye Upon The Scale focuses on music collected by After Coal project advisors Helen Lewis, John Gaventa, and Richard Greatrex as they developed a groundbreaking video exchange between the coalfields of central Appalachia and south Wales between 1974 and 1976.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 11.49.00 AMBe sure to scroll to the bottom of the webpage for additional music clips from The Strange Creek Singers, Cor Meibion Onllwyn, and Rich Kirby.   Many of these musical gems will find their way into the soundtrack of the After Coal documentary.

– Tom Hansell for After Coal

From Merthyr to Harlan

By Richard Davies

RD@Portal31Richard Davies directs the media program at Merthyr Tydfill College in the former South Wales coalfields. In October 2014, Davies presented to youth in the eastern Kentucky coalfields and shared lessons from his work in former mining communities.  He writes about his experience exchanging ideas among mining communities.


A view of Merthyr Tydfill in South Wales

I was born, live and work in Merthyr Tydfil. Merthyr is a former iron and steel town on the northern edge of the south Wales coalfield. My family is from lower down the valley, in the former steam coal mining villages of Pentrebach and Aberfan. I teach film and video in the local college. My main academic interest is documentary theory and production, which I combine with filmmaking.


One of the themes of After Coal is a comparison of the experiences of the people of south Wales and Appalachia in relation to coal mining and the cultural and political forms of expression arising from rapid industrialization, exploitative production practices and a rapid de-industrialization. This has left towns such as Merthyr with a depressed economy, cultural impoverishment and dealing with a massive legacy of ill health.

I knew a little bit about eastern Kentucky before my visit. My family have been community and union

Mine Supply Building, Harlan, Kentucky.
Mine Supply Building, Harlan, Kentucky.

activists since way back when. I’d heard folk songs about ‘bloody Harlan’ and ‘Perry County’. Later, when I became involved in film making I watched films like Harlan County USA, and more importantly for me, found out about the Appalshop Media Arts Center and filmmakers like Mimi Pickering who seemed to be interested in the same kind of committed filmmaking that I was interested in. Occasionally I might get to see one of the films.

So… sometime last October there I was flying down the east coast of America with this cultural baggage and landing in Charlotte, North Carolina to meet Tom. The first thing that struck me was how big the place was, the second thing that struck me was that I had to come up with something sensible to talk about.

One of the central aspects of my work in Merthyr has been the attempt to develop practical ways of using art and cultural activity to encourage and support individual and community regeneration. I want to work with people to encourage and develop the creation of new narratives that offer a wider range of representations than those currently available. Ideally, these new stories both sustain those who make them and make representations outward to those in power.

Richard Daives and students at Merthyr Tydfill College.  photo by Stephen Maybank
Richard Daives working with students at Merthyr Tydfill College. photo by Stephen Maybank

Two ideas seem to me to be particularly important in helping to create these new stories. The first is to try and get some continuity or cross over between generations, so that the experiences of the past become relevant to conditions now. The second is to argue for the importance of making links between individuals and then between groups of people to explore common values and interests.


I found it impossible to avoid comparing eastern Kentucky and south Wales in many respects, most of them trivial I suppose, like breakfast and barbecue, and the different beer, of course. The sheer size of the place- you can drive from north to south of the south Wales Coalfield in ½ hour and east to west in two. At the same time how small the towns of Harlan and Whitesburg, Kentucky were, more like Aberfan than Merthyr.

Youth from Appalshop's Appalachian Media Institute talk about making media in the coalfeilds.
Youth from Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute talk with Richard about making media in the coalfields.

Then, at the Appalachian Media Institute in Whitesburg I met young people in whom I recognized the desire to make new stories and to establish connectivity across gulfs of political and social change. At Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College in Harlan I found people doing amazing work with drama and song in an institution whose buildings and atmosphere were remarkably like the main College building in Merthyr. Most of all I recognized in the students and staff in both Harlan and Whitesburg a similar kind of ambition and desire as in my students in Merthyr. Now, the next move is to get those guys talking….and collaborating…



Snapshots from the After Coal Arts and Youth forum

The After Coal project has facilitated an exchange between former mining communities in South Wales and coal communities in east Kentucky this fall. On October 27 and 28, Richard Davies from the media program at Merthyr Tydfill College presented to youth in Letcher and Harlan Counties in Kentucky. Here are a few photos from his visit.

Youth from the Higher Ground project in Harlan County present their work.
Youth from the Higher Ground project in Harlan County present their work.
Richard Davies pauses outside the Portal 31 demonstration mine in Harlan County, KY


Youth from Appalshop's Appalachian Media Institute talk about making media in the coalfeilds.
Youth from Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute talk with Richard Davies about making media in the coalfields.









Richard Davies on the campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College in Harlan, KY
Richard Davies present youth media from Wales on the campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College in Harlan, KY


Higher Ground participants Robert Gipe, Devyn Creech, and Cassidy Wright exchange ideas about the role of youth in community regeneration.
Higher Ground participants Robert Gipe, Devyn Creech, and Cassidy Wright exchange ideas about how youth can help revitalize coal communities.












Hope for the Future: Arts and Youth

In East Kentucky, Harlan Daily Enterprise reporter Jennifer McDaniels writes about next weeks Arts and Youth forum sponsored by the After Coal project.

Arts And Youth Forum To Be Held At SKCTC Harlan Campus 

Harlan County youth participate in the Higher Ground theater project in the fall of 2013

As Harlan County works to diversify its local economy, a number of community and educational groups are working to ensure that the decline in the coal industry will not gravely impact the area’s sustainability. A partnership between the grassroots group The Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and Appalachian State University has generated a series of public forums in eastern Kentucky that have tackled this issue and generated dialogue concerning the future after coal. One of these planned forums is scheduled in conjunction with Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College on Tuesday night at the Harlan Campus.

Richard Davies from Merthyr Tydfil College will discuss his work with youth in the former Welsh coalfeilds
Richard Davies from Merthyr Tydfil College will discuss his work with youth in the former Welsh coalfields

An Arts and Youth Forum will be open to the public Tuesday night and will feature special speaker Richard Davies of Wales, who directs the media program at Merthyr Tydfill College in a former South Wales mining town. Davies will present work created by his students and share lessons learned converting an old town hall in Wales into an arts center for the college. Local youth have also been invited to take part in this exchange. Students with SKCTC’s “Higher Ground” will be present at Tuesday’s forum to showcase their work.

Tom Hansell of the Center For Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University said questions will be posed that should set the stage for much needed dialogue in coalfield communities like Harlan County.

“What role can young people play in reinventing their communities, and can eastern Kentucky learn from the experiences of other coal mining regions? This is just an example of some of the conversation that will be facilitated Tuesday night.”

The coalfields of South Wales shut down 30 years ago, and former mining towns were forced to diversify their economy. According to Hansell, as central Appalachian coal employment continues to decline, many are looking to Wales for ideas. Tuesday’s Arts And Youth Forum is the third in a series of forums that have been held throughout eastern Kentucky this fall. A Homegrown Tourism forum was held in Elkhorn City in September, and a Sustainable Development forum was held in Whitesburg earlier this month.

Tuesday’s Arts And Youth forum begins at 6 pm in the theater of SKCTC’s Harlan Campus. A reception welcoming Davies, as well as Harlan County candidates vying for local political offices, will be held at the campus at 5 pm. Refreshments will be served, and candidates are encouraged to attend for a public “meet and greet” before the start of the forum.

The series of fall forums has been supported by a grant from the Chorus Foundation.

Finding Hope in Global Exchange

by Angela Wiley

Mair Francis, Hywel Francis, Elizabeth Sanders and Evan Smith respond to questions.

After a car ride through the fall colors of Appalachia, I found my way to Whitesburg, Kentucky where the lobby of Appalshop Inc was full of community members, snacks and good conversation. The After Coal project teamed up with staff at Appalshop and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth to organize a forum to discuss policies for sustainable community development.  Honored guests Mair Francis and Hywel Francis traveled from Wales to eastern Kentucky to share information about the cornucopia of community and government supported initiatives that have been tested in former mining communities of South Wales.

Mair and Hywel Francis were joined by WMMT-FM staff Elizabeth Sanders, After Coal director Tom Hansell  and Panelists Evan Smith from the Appalachian Citizens Law Center and Robin Gabbard from the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky .  The group watched short film clips and discussed how to create healthy communities after coal mines close. The first question from the audience, about finding and hanging on to hope in hard times, set the mood for a discussion rooted in desires, but also in reality.

Gabby Gillespie asks a question about women and labor.
Gabby Gillespie asks a question about women and labor.

Hywel and Mair Francis discussed three areas vital to community regeneration: investment in education, environmental reclamation, and locally controlled community funds.  Evan Smith discussed the potential to use funds from the federal abandoned mine lands fund for community development, and Robin Gabbard explained how the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky helped provide educational opportunities for the regions youth.


Hywel and Mair acknowledged that there is a  long road for communities in South Wales to recover from the industry collapse. “The great defining moment, really, was thirty years ago when we had the great miners’ strike of ’84-’85…we had to develop a new sense of community” reflected Hywel. In eastern Kentucky, and in many pockets of the southern Appalachian mountains, communities are just starting to talk about a life after coal through. In the United States, funding mechanisms for community based solutions may look different — but the attitudes and efforts required to build resilient communities after coal are not nationally determined. Through this visit from Hywel and Mair Francis, forum participants were able to ask the panel and themselves difficult questions about sustainable solutions for Appalachian mining communities.

Mair and Hywel Francis share their experiences from South Wales.
Mair and Hywel Francis share their experiences from South Wales.

The community forum in Whitesburg, KY is the second of three forums featuring the work of the After Coal project. A forum to discuss the role of youth and the arts in community regeneration will be held October 28 on the campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College in Harlan, KY.

Connecting Mining Communities: Whitesburg Forum

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Appalshop, and the After Coal team are excited to converge on Tuesday, October 7 in Whitesburg with guests from Wales.

This will be the second of three forums about just transition in the coalfields. Mair Francis, founder of the DOVE Workshop, and Hywel Francis, a Labour Member of Parliament for Aberavon, Wales, will offer stories from former coal communities in Wales.

WalesForumAdEvent Date:
October 7, 2014 – 6:00pm to 9:00pm
Event Venue:
Appalshop Theater
91 Madison Ave, Whitesburg KY


Homegrown Tourism Forum Report

After Coal director Tom Hansell presented at a forum co-sponsored by the Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council in Elkhorn City, Kentucky September 18.  He shares his reflections on the event.

This mural created by local students working with artist Susan Steinman points the way to a riverside trail. Photo by Tom Hansell


A lot of water has flowed under the bridge that spans the Russell Fork River in downtown Elkhorn City (population 1000) since my last visit.  This communtiy and its people have been close to my heart for a long time.  I made my first documentary The Breaks of the Mountain (1999) about local efforts to use the rivers and trails surrounding Elkhorn City to drive adventure tourism.   The Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council formed during the production of the documentary and has been a driving force in celebrating the unique cultural and natural heritage of the area.

The world has changed a great deal is the 15 years since I finished The Breaks of The Mountain.  Coal employment was on the decline even during the Clinton era and coal production in East Kentucky peaked in 2001.  Over the past two years the bottom has dropped out of the market for central Appalachian coal.

The local economy is just as tough as it was in 1999, some might say it is tougher. Several storefronts in Elkhorn City still sit empty, and the venerable Rusty Fork Cafe on Patty Loveless boulevard closed its doors during the past year.  But many residents in Elkhorn City have plans for a better future.  One bright spot is the The Pine Mountain Trail State Park, a 110 mile trail on the ridge that forms the Kentucky/Virginia state line.  A  trail head opened in Elkhorn City a few years ago, and many residents see the combination of the trail, the nearby Breaks Interstate Park, and the whitewater of the Russell Fork River as a natural foundation for a new local economy. The Heritage Council is helping to host a 100 mile trail race in a few weeks, and it is great to see so much energy around the Pine Mountain Trail.

Tim Belcher, president of the Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council introduces After Coal director Tom Hansell at the forum. Photo by Steve Ruth

At the forum in Elkhorn City, I showed a short video that highlighted two examples of local tourism efforts  from former coal communities in Wales.  The first was a private enterprise called Call of The Wild.  This company uses the outdoors to provide management training for businesses throughout the UK.   The second example is a mountain bike park built on an abandoned mine site (now public property) in Glyncorrwyg.  The local community all pitched in one pound per household to match government support of the project.

After watching the stories from Wales, local residents shared their visions for the future and identified obstacles that may prevent their vision from being realized.    A series of great ideas quickly surfaced, some as simple as improving signage so that visitors can quickly locate attractions. Others offered long term plans such as building a ropes course and a training center on riverside property.  The main obstacle identified by residents of Elkhorn City is the lack of access to development capital.  Local banks are often wary of funding start up businesses with a high rate of failure, and local government is strapped for cash.

A view from one of the overlooks in the Breaks Interstate Park.  Photo by Tom Hansell
A view from one of the overlooks in the Breaks Interstate Park. Photo by Tom Hansell

These are not just local challenges for Elkhorn City, but challenges faced by residents in rural communities throughout the US and Great Britain.  To create a better future, local people will need to be creative about using local assets and building partnerships to access the funds they need to regenerate their community.

The Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council works to ensure that unique local assets are at the heart of any plans to build a future after coal.  This place based approach provides a vital element for creating sustainable coalfield communities.

The Homegrown Tourism forum in Elkhorn City is the first of three forums featuring the work of the After Coal project.  A forum to discuss sustainable development policies will be held October 7 at the Appalchop Theater in Whitesburg, KY; and a forum to discuss the role of youth and the arts in community regeneration will be held October 28 on the campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College in Harlan, KY.