Riverina landholders in the path of a proposed transmission project have detailed the lack of sleep, anxiety and mental toll it is having on them as consultation progresses.
Andrea and Paul Sturgess live on 160 hectares in the southern end of Gilmore Valley, outside of Batlow - a property that has been in the family for generations.
The couple say they feel as if they've been living in limbo for the past 18 months since first receiving notice from Transgrid that a 500kV power line was proposed to go through their property.
The notice came just months after the Dunns Road fire tore through the Snowy Valleys, where the Sturgess fought three fire fronts for almost two hours at one point to protect their home and livelihood.
Mrs Sturgess said if she had to chose between re-living the fire, or dealing with the HumeLink consultation process, she would chose the former.
"The fire comes and goes quickly, but HumeLink is going to drag on for years," she said.
"This is a gut-wrenching thing and you don't know what to do."
The HumeLink project involves a proposed 500kV transmission line set to carry electricity to customers from new generation sources, including Snowy 2.0. The project will connect Wagga, Bannaby and Maragle, with powerlines set to travel through a number of Riverina properties.
Community consultation around the route of the power lines first began in early 2020, when impacted landholders were notified of the project. It continued amid backlash throughout the year, as landholders expressed fears they were not being listened to by the energy giant.
Consultation continued this year, albeit a little quieter, until Transgrid revamped their community engagement processes with a new team in July and announced new corridor options in September.
Mrs Sturgess said the ongoing uncertainty around the project has left her unable to make plans for the future. She and her husband have halted renovations on their property following the fires, and are unsure whether to go along with an agri-tourism venture - a venture that may well become unusable if the power lines go overhead.
"When they come and they dictate to you and tell you what they're going to do, you just sit here and think gee, you don't even own your own land," Mrs Sturgess said.
She described the process as causing "mental fatigue", adding that a recent newsletter sent to landholders by Transgrid included an offer of free counselling.
"That's an admission from Transgrid how they know they are affecting us mentally to offer to pay for counselling for us," Mrs Sturgess said.
Mr Sturgess has not slept in months, constantly waking up in the middle of the night and describing "the whole HumeLink thing" as "soul destroying".
"I have never been so pissed off about anything before in my life," he said.
"It's well and truly time Transgrid had a good long look at itself and take into consideration the effect they are having on people and the community."
Another impacted landholder, Rebecca Tobin, said that receiving phone calls from Transgrid brings about an intense mix of emotions.
"One generally feels immobilised to speak up against them as they generally only call to tell us what they are going to do, rather than anything that could be called consultation," she said.
"We will never get the last 12 months back; we feel emotionally and mentally robbed by Transgrid."
A survey of landholders impacted by HumeLink was conducted by Wagga MP Joe McGirr's office, which found that among 110 respondents, 76 per cent stated the project has negatively impacted their mental health.
Almost half of the responses mentioned stress, while anxiety was mentioned in ten responses. Seven people also expressed an impact on their ability to sleep.
Mrs Tobin, whose family has owned a cattle grazing property in Darlow for more than seven decades, says the results don't surprise her - seeing the impacts not only within herself but her extended family.
She said the stress comes on top of dealing with COVID-19, and the Dunns Road bushfire of 2019-20.
Douglas and Belinde Rand, landholders north of Batlow, echoed these concerns, noting that before the bushfires even hit, farmers were contending with the drought.
"We are feeling stressed, anxious and intimidated, contending against a formidable and influential opponent," they both wrote.
"We are facing the real prospect of our hard work and dreams for our property, our lifestyle and inheritance for our children being gutted."
They said the effort many landholders are going to in organising community meetings, and writing letters advocating for their land, is "tiring and taxing", adding to the workload of rebuilding and running their farm.
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In a statement, a Transgrid spokesperson said the company "remains committed to meaningful, transparent engagement" throughout the course of the project.
"We would like to thank community groups for continuing to engage with us and we understand landowners and others in the HumeLink footprint need clarification on the project's potential impact as soon as possible," the spokesperson said.
They added that the preferred option for HumeLink is expected in the first half of 2022, with new corridor options being "actively investigat[ed]".
This included starting regular newsletters, bringing on three Place Managers to actively engage with landholders, establishing a Community Consultative Group framework, introducing the free counselling service and commencing general information sessions.
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