Stress over the massive powerline project is beginning to have physical effects on some farmers east of Ballarat, community members say, amid uncertainty on when a decision will be made on the exact route of the powerlines.
The Western Victoria Transmission Network Project aims to build high-voltage powerlines above ground between Bulgana, north of Ararat, to Sydenham in Melbourne's west, using 85 metre tall pylons across rich farming districts.
With community consultation interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, people living in the broad area of interest say they remain unsure about the project's timelines, among other issues like fire risk, compulsory acquisition, and impact on farming practices.
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The project's proponent, AusNet Services, is currently completing an Environmental Effects Statement, looking at environmental, social, cultural, and economic impacts across the area of interest - a process that could take some months.
"We're still in the process of completing a comprehensive analysis on the area of interest, including considering feedback from landowners and the community, preliminary field studies and discussions with the Technical Reference Group," an AusNet spokesperson said in a statement.
"We will announce the corridors for further study and field work as soon as we have completed the comprehensive analysis.
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"Confirmation of project study corridors is really important in progressing the EES. Once detailed on ground assessments have been completed, we'll confirm a final alignment."
Kevin Conroy has lived in the area for 68 years - his property in Bolwarrah is in the area of interest.
He said he had opposed freeways, gas pipelines, and other giant projects, and they'd all ended up going ahead.
"I know it's going to happen, every other project they've done in my lifetime has happened even with people complaining," he said.
"I'm not against it, definitely not against it, but I just think they should tell us straight, up front, when they're coming and what they're going to do.
"I don't think there's any advantage for us people in the country."
He added he had been checking in on his neighbours more since the letters from AusNet had arrived, and he was concerned about what he had been hearing, including one neighbour he said had developed shingles.
"They've got each side of the freeway at each other's throats, over saying they may be going the other side of the freeway, and that's not good for any community to have people on either side of a fence - if they came out today and said 'this is where we're going', then people would be up in arms for a week or so, but they'd just have to move on with their lives," he said.
"I'm hearing it's affecting people's mental state of mind, and that's not good."
An AusNet spokesperson said they appreciated it was a "difficult time".
"While the project team are always happy to hear directly from the community, we take mental health very seriously," they said.
"Since July we have made independent counselling services available to any community member who needs support with this project and we strongly encourage them to reach out to Benestar directly. For confidential coaching and support call 1300 360 364. AusNet Services will not be able to access any information regarding who uses the services or any discussions that are held with Benestar. Telephone, video, face-to-face (subject to Covid-19 health restrictions) consultations are available."
While the EES assessment continues, farmers have been asked to allow workers onto their properties to carry out surveys - Mr Conroy was one of them.
AusNet said they are committed to best practice, working with Agriculture Victoria.
"While we adhere to the highest standards in our processes, every property is different and farmers will have views on what is most important to them and their property. That's why we believe biosecurity processes are never a one size fits all approach," the spokesperson said.
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"We're inviting farmers to meet us at the gate and take a look at our processes and let us know if there is something specific for their property.
"Upon arrival at each property, the team holds a meeting at the gate and we're inviting the farmers to join us. The team are briefed on the access requirements of the property as highlighted by the landowner in the land access agreement. It's also a great opportunity for farmers to highlight anything relevant to biosecurity processes that might be happening in the area that day.
"Once the land access requirements are understood for the property, vehicles are then subject to a high pressure clean. Farmers are encouraged to watch and advise if they have additional requirements to our cleaning process.
"Upon entering and leaving each property, the team use disinfectant on their vehicles and boots to maintain the highest standards when it comes to stopping the spread of pests and disease.
"To find out more about our processes, please join us at the farm gate or reach out to the Western Victoria Transmission Network Project team on 9021 0674."
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