The Yaven Creek, Lower Bago and Willigobung communities came together at a meeting at Yaven Creek on Sunday and they had one clear message: if TransGrid wants to work with us, they work with all of us.
“They’re going to want to cherry-pick us off,” warned cattle farmer Matt Pearce at the meeting which he co-hosted and co-organised.
TransGrid has released a proposal that could result in a 500kV powerline being constructed through Yaven Creek and other local areas, to connect a Snowy 2.0 substation at Maragle with the metropolitan grid. The project is titled ‘HumeLink’, and will include 65-metre tall towers to carry the line, with a 70-metre easement.
Mr Pearce said there are significant biosecurity risks for farms, with one landholder already reporting invasive weeds which have sprouted on his property underneath the 330kV line which TransGrid already has in the valley.
Farmers were encouraged to make sure their biosecurity plans are up to date and well advertised.
Beside Mr Pearce at the meeting was his wife, Angela, and recent Yaven Creek transplant Sanja Galic. Ms Galic and her husband, Joe, bought property in Yaven Creek last October, choosing that location over other areas in the Snowy Valleys, because other properties had large power lines running through them.
“This didn’t show up on any maps or any searches,” said Ms Galic, adding that she wouldn’t have purchased the property if she had known this project was in the works. She and her family maintain a residence in Sydney, but travel down to their property on weekends. Like their neighbours, the Galics suffered extensive fire damage.
The two-hour meeting at the Yaven Creek fire shed on Sunday had nearly 100 people in attendance, socially distanced outside, with each person using sanitised pens to log their details in accordance with current Covid-19 protocols. Even the microphone was sanitised as Mr Pearce handed it to Wagga MP Dr Joe McGirr and it was handed back again.
TransGrid’s outreach to the community so far has been limited to two letters sent in the mail to farmers whose land falls directly within the proposed corridor.
Ms Galic said some farmers have been too mentally exhausted to open the letters. Others, whose homes fall a few hundred metres outside the corridor, haven’t been contacted at all, because they’re not deemed to be directly affected.
So far, everyone agreed, the community consultation process has left a lot to be desired.
“Absolutely woeful,” was how NSW Farmer’s Regional Services Manager Dan Brear described it, referencing another TransGrid project, ‘Energy Connect’, which has been hosting drop-in community information sessions at public halls in Balranald, Hay, Urana, Coleambally, Lockhart and Wagga.
He questioned why a similar format couldn’t be rolled out in the Snowy Valleys.
“I think the approach you’re taking is exactly right,” agreed Dr McGirr. “To be honest, what you’ve said about the company and large organisations like that whether they’re private or government, they always forget the people affected and really my job is to make sure your concerns get raised to government, so this is really helpful to me.”
Dr McGirr has been taking the HumeLink issue to parliament, and while he acknowledged at Sunday’s meeting that the powerline is a significant part of the country’s energy strategy, and it will have to go somewhere, the process should be taking landholders into account.
“Dig your heels in here and now,” he said.
The community elected a committee to represent their interests and liaise with TransGrid, politicians and the media.
Chairing the committee will be Matt Pearce, who was nominated by a community member and received a round of applause for the work he and Ms Galic have done so far. Ms Galic will co-chair the committee, with other members including Megan Finnimore, Paul Bunter, Ian Robson, Frank Corbett, John Corbett and Nicki Pearce.
The committee will represent the Yaven Creek/Lower Bago/Willigobung area to represent the issues specific to that area. They intend to work with committees from other affected areas, such as Bombowlee and Gilmore.
“This is going to be a generational project that will have an impact on our valley,” said Mr Pearce. “It makes me sad to think, I just can’t believe we’re actually standing here talking about this after what we’ve been through this year.
“If we don’t do something now, we’ll never ever get the opportunity again.
“It’s the last thing I wanted to be doing and I’m sure it’s the last thing any of us wanted to be doing.
“It makes me really angry and really upset and really devastated to think it might actually happen.”
The timeline for the project allows 18 months between the start of the community consultation period (which TransGrid said began in February this year) and a final investment decision.
Mr Pearce described the company as ‘deceptive’, trying to create the impression of a community consultation period to “tick the boxes” without really listening to the community or being present.
He described meeting a TransGrid worker in front of his property who told him they were identifying survey marks for the HumeLink project. When Mr Pearce tried to discuss his concerns with the TransGrid community relations team, he said they told him his information was incorrect.
“I think this is going to be a lot of the behavior that we will see from TransGrid in going forward, particularly in how they’re going to deal with people and particularly if you’re not directly affected by the project.”
Mr Pearce encouraged land holders to deny TransGrid access to their properties and to avoid any individual meetings or comments with the company.
“I’ve stated to TransGrid that I’m no longer wanting to have any negotiation or consultation,” he said. “At the moment I believe that is part of their community consultation and while-ever we’re engaging with them individually, I believe that we’re actually ticking the boxes for them to start putting their applications to planning.”
Instead, Mr Pearce urged farmers to stick together and voice their opinions – even pro-TransGrid opinions – to the committee, which will deal directly with the corporation.
Mr Pearce and others have also been seeking legal advice. During the meeting, they referenced case studies where communities have been able to stand together and require big companies to listen to their concerns and find alternatives. Mr Pearce referenced the Coonamble pipeline project, while Ms Galic spoke about an independent study done in the Manning Valley.
The independent study, commissioned by then-NSW Minister for Resources and Energy Chris Hartcher, found that the $160 million project in the Manning Valley was ‘unwarranted’.
The review was authored by engineer Robert Rollinson and stated: “The public consultation process used by TransGrid for this project should be independently reviewed to identify improvements that can be made.”
When the report was issued, Mr Peter Epov, Chairman of the Manning Alliance, released a lengthy statement, applauding the community for standing together against the company’s ‘divisive’ tactics.
“TransGrid did not just fail in its community consultation; they shattered the record on fueling community outrage,” he wrote. “They really had no idea on how to work with the community. It starts with establishing a culture where people are treated with ‘dignity and respect’.”
Mr Epov said “TransGrid deliberately tried to divide the community through the announcement of two main corridors and three options, they also tried to divide our community by conducting a ballot amongst affected landholders aimed at encouraging residents to vote against their neighbours; these are just two examples of deliberate attempts at being divisive.
“Our win was truly an inspirational example to all; demonstrating that if we work cooperatively, we can reach for the stars, we can take on the world and achieve boundless outcomes for our community.”
The Manning Valley project was eventually scrapped.
“We’d be naive to think we can actually stop the project as a community,” said Mr Pearce, recognising that Snowy 2.0 needs the transmission line to take its energy to market. “TransGrid needs to be aware there are alternatives.”
For the Yaven Creek region, the alternative they’re currently exploring would reroute the TransGrid line through the nearby Green Hills State Forest. Mr Pearce encouraged community members with different views to contact the committee, but maintain a united front.
“If they have little regard for us as a community, then as a project, there’s no need for us to be sympathetic towards it,” he told them.
The community approved three motions:
Motion One: The rural communities of Yaven Creek, Lower Bago and Willigobung totally reject HumeLink project and associated industries proposed corridors through our farmlands (carried unanimously).
Motion Two: there will be no individual meetings with affected landholders until all avenues are exhausted to consider the alternatives through crown land. We will only hold meetings in the presence of community representatives (committee) (carried unanimously).
Motion Three: The Yaven Creek, Lower Bago and Willigobung community, after holding a meeting on 26th July 2020, have unanimously shown support that farmland is too important to put at risk and the HumeLink TransGrid power lines will be blocked at all cost (carried unanimously).