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Insights from Global Research Coordination Network on Coal Transitions workshops

From mines started in WW2 to former mine-site offices housing Ukrainian refugees

From 14 to 20 May, I joined a group of global scholars working on the social and economic aspects of coal transitions around the world. There were representatives from USA, UK, Poland, Singapore, China, and me from Australia. The meetings began at the University of Durham in the north of England, with two days of presentations, listening to the experience of mine closure and transition in Britain and USA.

Banner saying ‘Durham Miners Association: Haswell Lodge. They being dead yet speaketh.’

In the case of Durham, the mining heritage of the town continues to this day in diverse ways, even though mining closed many decades ago. When mining was at its peak, mine workers established substantial literacy and education programs to ensure benefits for future generations. On a tour of the town we saw banners on display highlighting contributions from mining to health services, literacy and music. Once per year, these banners are all brought out together as part of a lively mining heritage festival.

For the USA, we heard about the strong emotional attachment to coal regions, where people associated smoke stacks with feelings of safety, home and family connections that span several generations. In addition to the presentations, we commenced planning an international conference on coal transitions which will take place in Columbus, USA from 17-19 July, 2024. This conference will be an opportunity to share experiences across a wider range of contexts as well as develop the agenda for the next phase in global research. The conference will include a focus on outreach and extension connecting with communities at the coal face of regional transition.

Throughout the week, it was clear that researchers from other countries had many questions about Australian coal mining and experience of closure. So when it was my turn to speak in Poland, I began with a series of high-level charts about the coal mining industry in Australia and provided visual images of mines at different stages of the lifecycle to convey a sense of what is like here. The talk went down very well and several people came up to me afterwards to say how they were struck by the similarities and differences compared with other countries.

Old mining offices-turned-accommodation

Probably the highlight of the week was a site visit to a Polish coal-fired power station and one of the remaining mines that supplies the plant. Currently planned to close by the end of 2023, the mine was initially opened by the Nazis during the occupation of Poland in WWII. The original purpose of the mine was to supply coal for heating of homes by German settlers. Post-war, the Polish took over the mine and it supplied briquettes for home heating until a coal fired power station was opened nearby during the 1960s. A total of 6 furnaces combined with turbines were installed, with only one left today, supplying around 1200 MW. To keep the plant running, local coal production frequently needed to be supplemented with German coal. The whole plant is expected to close within 3 years.

We also visited a repurposed mine-site that is currently a tourist park. The pit was turned into a lake and filled with water piped from a dewatered mine operating nearby. There were also playgrounds and a hostel repurposed from mine-site offices. I learned that the park has not been a commercial success, but is currently serving an important purpose in the form of providing affordable housing to Ukrainian refugees.

Overall, the trip was an excellent way to link CRC TiME with a global network of scholars. CRC TiME will share updates about the 2024 Columbus conference when they are available and we are already looking ahead to a workshop in Australia in 2025.

–Professor Tom Measham, Research Director