Nobody missed a night at the Spicers Creek Drinking Club.
Here, in the comfort of a mate’s lounge room or tractor shed, was a chance to wash away the long week with a longneck; an opportunity to bond with pals over life’s hardships and triumphs. To talk rubbish and not be judged. To recline with a gut full and entertain with a good tale; a little bit of country gossip.
They were happy moments in a happy valley, unquestionably the highlight of the week in this collection of farmhouses huddled around Goolma, a dot of a town located 45 minutes northwest of Mudgee.
Birthed out of the drought years in the early 1990s that turned verdant green hillsides into barren yellow lumps, the Spicers Creek Drinking Club survived the ageing of its members. It survived apathy that grows with every year.
It survived fights and pointed words.
It could not, however, survive the arrival of wind power. This social club, like the friendships that once knitted it together, has been dissolved, killed off by a bitter division that has cut a line through the community and pitted farmers against farmers, and neighbours against neighbours.
For four years, a handful of farmers in the district hid a secret that not even a weekly drinks session or years of friendship could drag out.
They had covertly opened up their farm gate to wind farm developers, lured by the cash offer of $15,000 for every wind turbine dug into their property – unbeknownst to the mate across the barbed wire fence whose hand they shook most days.
When the two local councils that share the region finally tabled the proposals to build four large-scale wind farms the neighbours came to the stark realisation that they were already surrounded.
They had been dudded by their mates, and they didn’t even see it coming.
Two kilometres from their lounge room windows, giant turbines 194 metres high – as tall as some skyscrapers – were looming large, 250 in one project alone.
And so came the anger. This sleepy rural valley, home to thousands of merino and white dorper sheep, not to mention shared interests and old friendships, was at war.
Ross Conn was a founding member of the Spicers Creek Drinking Club. He shudders when he recalls the moment his close friend and neighbour hurtled into his lounge room and said through gritted teeth they could no longer be friends. The hurt is scribbled all over his sun-parched, saddened face.
“We’ve been friends for years. There were four families. We celebrated our milestone birthdays together. We all hosted surprise birthday parties for the eight of us. One family (that is hosting wind turbines), we used to have Christmas drinks with them on Christmas morning and one year they were on their own and they came down for Christmas Day with us,” Conn says. “We had drinks every Friday night in each other’s homes. Now it has gone. It’s pretty devastating.
“Another family, when they came down to talk about the proposal, and he’s a bit of an aggressive type of guy, and he came into our lounge room, and because we had sent a letter of notice, he said `You can’t send a letter like this and expect to stay friends’. I said, `Well you can’t put these damn things up and expect to remain friends’.”
That was three months ago, and they haven’t spoken since. Ross is now on medication to help him sleep at night; the stress has become that bad.
Ross’s tale of woe is a mere sad chapter in a library of community division and broken relationships that stretch up this valley, and the valleys that cling to the Crudine Ridge southwest of Mudgee where a further 160 wind turbines are proposed.
As part of the relatively small Bodangara project near Goolma, Michael Lyons was offered the same deal from smooth-talking suits from the power generation companies; a substantial annual benefit that could turn his acreage into a massive cash cow.
But the region’s rural fire service captain couldn’t do to his neighbours what they were secretly doing to him.
Legislation introduced after the extensive wind farms were built on the hills above Lake George, near Canberra, prevents any wind turbine being built within two kilometres of homes.
Lyons’ home is 2.007km from the nearest proposed turbine that will likely shadow his property in the winter sun, all thanks to his “thoughtless” neighbours.
“I’ve known them for years, We grew up together. When I see them now, let’s just say it is cordial at best. It is very strained,” he said.
“The hosts make no bones about the fact this is about money. You don’t do that to your neighbour. How much is a friendship worth? They genuinely believe they have a right to do this, and in part they do, but as long as it doesn’t interfere with the wellbeing of your neighbour. You couldn’t do this in Sydney, Melbourne or Tasmania, it doesn’t matter where you are. They just don’t get it.”
The thing that worries Lyons most is not the constant hum, nor the disfiguring his countryside. It’s the devaluation of land.
“But then again land devaluation is hard to prove because there are not many sales. They can’t sell the land,” he says.
While wind energy proponents continue to deny the theory of land devaluation surrounding wind farm projects, and outright deny the thought of noise pollution, a study produced by Wind Burst Publishing found that regardless of property type, properties up to 2km from turbines had a high chance of being uninhabitable and “unworkable without serious discomfort”.
It claimed farm residences with such proximity could see their property valuations plummet by as much as 50 per cent. For those properties in between 2km and 5km away, valuations could fall by 30 per cent.
If that scenario proves correct, everything John and Jane Xuereb have worked towards; their entire superannuation, would evaporate. This couple moved from Sydney’s western suburb of Plumpton in January of 1980 in search of a peaceful existence; close enough to a regional town, yet far enough away for their burdens to drop from the shoulders whenever their car rounds the dusty bend into their front yard.
This is home. With somewhat of an endearing, well-rehearsed line, John implores most people that come from the city, that they have to stay at least one night in Uungala to truly capture what he’s talking about. It’s damn quiet out here. And he loves every second of it.
The Uungala wind project, the biggest proposed in the district with 250 turbines, will hem them in on three sides, completely spoiling their personal paradise.
“We’ve got them all around us; in the west, in the north and the east. It will be on our doorstep and we will get the noise and whatever else comes with it,” he said.
He is another farmer in this district that has kissed goodbye to once solid friendships. Neighbourly love went out the door months ago, potentially never to return.
“We obviously don’t talk anymore. I have about three joining neighbours that are getting them. One of them wanted to sell a block off and he wanted $320,000 or $330,000 for it, 600 acres, and he has since sold it for $200,000. These fellas with the power tell me that it doesn’t affect your values, but it makes you wonder doesn’t it.”
It was always the Xuerebs’ plan to market their patch of soil to a Sydney businessman who either wanted to escape the city for a lifestyle change , or could afford to splash out on a rural retreat. Nobody will want to buy it now, he believes. Their super will be locked away forever.
It is a different story on the other side of the fence where 81-year-old retired farmer Clancy Rowbotham has inked a deal to put several wind turbines on his property, reaping him a windfall. He now lives 45km away from where the nearest wind turbine will be built.
Despite the fierce objections from his neighbours the Xuerebs, he still believes he has not wronged his friends.
“They have lodged a complaint which is fair enough. The way I look at it is, well I didn’t ask (the wind company) to put it there. I said it was OK by me. Financially, as far as I’m concerned it will be good,” he says.
There was no breakdown in the relationship with his neighbours, the 81-year-old maintained.
He obviously hasn’t picked up the phone to the Xuerebs lately. “The Rowbothams, when his wife got sick, we took their children in for several weeks and helped them out, fed them and got them to school. I can’t understand how they can do this to us. It’s cruel,” Jane Xuereb says.
Further down Goolma Road, a narrow gravel track veers off to the left up to a ridge line where Lyn and Robert Jarvis’s property offers gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside.
It’s a tidy, working farm with vintage tractors in the back shed and a spacious homestead with a recently built deck to enjoy the views.
If the Bodangora wind project is given final approval, this new deck will be front and centre to 30-odd wind turbines on the hills opposite their home – most reaching heights of 194m. It will be akin to a viewing platform for the wind farm.
Lyn is the type of fighter that the wind energy crowd probably hoped they never had to encounter – a tough-as-nails farm girl boasting much spirit, much tenacity; someone that spends hours every night reading up about wind power generation and government process, not because she wants to, but because she wants to win.
She would rather be spending that time with her family, or having a few cans of New with her friends. She pines for the day when she can get together with her like-minded neighbours and talk about something other than turbines and the banality of bureaucracy.
But for now, it is her sole focus, and a cause she knows will be arduous to win, given the federal government is clearly not on her side.
As one of the cornerstones in the Gillard government’s climate change policy, wind power has become a developer’s dream thanks to generous incentives and subsidies offered through its $10 billion renewable energies investment fund.
People like Lyn are merely road kill on the government’s headlong charge to meet its renewable energy targets.
“The thing that is so offensive to me is, this is Ross, he’s a friend of mine and if Ross called for anything, I would be there straight away. This division in the community will go further than the loss of that, it will go further than Ross’s drinks. It will ruin this community,” she said.
“The proponents call us not Robert and Lyn, we are receptor locator 16. That’s how we are known. The government departments are so for the wind industry that I think we are pushing shit uphill quite frankly.
“Legal action will be the only recourse we have left. And that’s happening in the wings at the moment, there is lots of stuff legally happening.”
It will end up in a class action, she says. “There is nothing surer than that.” The fight is on. It’s not the kind of round the Spicers Creek Drinking Club can handle.
ALL WAR, NO PEACE
They have never said it directly, but they have made Ruth Corrigan out to be a liar, a woman stretching the truth to look after her own interests.
The wind power company that has surrounded her 24ha property in the hills above Lake George is adamant that their 145m high wind turbines are deathly quiet.
Infigen Energy told her at the beginning in 2006 that their gigantic turbines would not impact on her way of living, and whenever she calls to complain about the noise which she likens to the dull roar of traffic, from an office in Pitt St, Sydney they tell her such claims are nonsense.
Just under 2km from the actual wind turbines, this mother of four begs to differ.
And she’s right.
The Daily Telegraph spent the night in the home of Ruth Corrigan at the foot of this collection of green-energy monstrosities.
There is noise – a low thud that seems to be on repeat, a wind effect that produces an eerie whirl. It’s minimal, but it’s there and ever-present in the lives of surrounded residents.
And this is a quiet day, given the winds are coming from the east.
There is also pressure that is felt across the forehead, akin to the early stages of a mild dehydration headache. Again, minimal, but entirely noticeable.
The dull noise drops into the late afternoon as an easterly begins to roar and is gone when the morning sun peaks over the ranges.
These are the mornings that Ruth Corrigan relishes.
This is the reality facing the farming communities dotted around Mudgee in the state’s central west, where energy companies propose to build four wind farms.
A promise from wind company reps in suits; and an outcome that is completely opposite.
But no one is listening.
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