The past three months have seen three unlikely environmental advocates embark on a journey that has taken them all the way to Canberra and the halls of power.
Sallys Flat sheep farmers Robyn and Geoff Rayner were joined by Turondale mum and student Jodie Carter in taking on the Federal Government after a Hill End property was shortlisted for a proposed national radioactive waste facility.
All three say they could never have imagined how much their lives would change during the 120-day public consultation process which ends on Friday.
They learned through a process of trial and error how to become environmental advocates. They sacrificed, they discovered strength they didn’t know they had and they made heartfelt connections with people all over Australia.
For the past three months their day-to-day lives have been put on hold with at least five hours a day, seven days a week devoted to their cause.
And they know that once the Friday deadline passes, there will be no more chances to ensure Hill End is not further shortlisted. They intend to run the whole way to the finish line.
“I have learned that when you believe in something so passionately and love something so much, you’ll find the strength to do whatever it takes to protect that,” Mrs Rayner said.
Their journey began on November 13 last year when the Federal Government announced a property at Sallys Flat (later amended to Hill End) had been included on a short list of voluntarily nominated sites to potentially host a new national nuclear waste facility.
It was the first most living in the area had heard about it.
Mrs Rayner said she and Geoff were on their way to a ram sale when a neighbour told them they had heard something about it on the news.
The couple knew straight away the property named was right across the road from their home and sheep stud.
They were torn. If they missed the sale it would put them behind 12 months on their breeding program.
“First we went to Mr Toole’s office and were told it was a federal matter, then we went to Mr Cobb’s office and were given three glossy brochures.”
“To be honest the enormity of it hadn’t really sunk in. It was too much to take in, so we decided to keep going,” Mrs Rayner said.
“We were shocked. We didn’t even have an inkling this was coming.”
Two days later they sent emails to Federal Member for Calare John Cobb, State Member for Bathurst Paul Toole and Bathurst mayor Gary Rush expressing their horror.
Cr Rush was the only one to respond.
“First we went to Mr Toole’s office and were told it was a federal matter, then we went to Mr Cobb’s office and were given three glossy brochures,” Mrs Rayner said.
“We were still hungry for information at that point. We gave our details and asked Mr Cobb to contact us, explaining we lived directly across the road.”
Still, they say, there was no response.
Members of the Hill End community called a public meeting to give everyone a say about whether they were ‘for or against’ a nuclear waste facility being built in Hill End. By the end of that meeting Mrs Rayner was nominated as the community spokesperson.
“I was reluctant. I had no idea what that entailed. I’d never done debating or public speaking in my life,” Mrs Rayner said.
“It was a bit daunting. I didn’t even know where to start.”
A further two community meetings followed. One was between the community and Mr Cobb, the second between the community, the government representatives and Mr Cobb.
In the meantime Jodie Carter set up a Facebook page ‘No Central West Nuclear dump.’ The page now has 3500 members.
“Never had I realised the power of social media,” Mrs Rayner said.
“I also started sending out emails to keep everyone up to date.”
Support from The Greens and the Beyond Nuclear Initiative proved a real eye-opener for the small community.
“Nuclear issues had never been on our radar before,” Mr Rayner said.
“The more we dug, the more we found out and the deeper we got.
“We now know so much about nuclear waste we are at a point where it is almost overwhelming.”
The Rayners own the highly respected Pomanara Merino Stud.
Mr Rayner believes that when the short-listing was announced, the government saw the people of Hill End as an easy target - half a dozen farmers from a remote community who knew nothing about anything.
“They didn’t get it. We had everything at stake - our existence, our livelihood, our heritage,” he said.
“The wool we grow you can’t grow anywhere else. You need those soils, the altitude, that climate. The area is noted for it.”
As a sustainable wool grower, the Rayners must be accountable for every aspect of the wool production - the chemicals used, how they store them, what they put in the soil, their treatment of their animals and how they prepare their wool for the mills.
Mr Rayner said no-one has been able to guarantee a nuclear waste facility nearby would have no impact on that.
So they started learning about things such as rallying people, meeting protocols, lobbying senior politicians and holding press conferences.
“They didn’t get it. We had everything at stake - our existence, our livelihood, our heritage.”
“I didn’t know I had this person inside of me,” Mrs Rayner said.
“Never in a million years could I have envisaged myself doing these things.
“I am grateful people have taken the time to explain things to me and teach me. The support and respect I have received has been amazing.”
Generations of Jodie Carter’s family have also lived in the area. She returned home to the region from Sydney to give her kids a better life.
She admits the past three months have been an emotive and anxious time.
“I’ve had thyroid cancer myself and the government has got to stop making people like me feel guilty and responsible for creating radioactive medical waste,” she said.
“Logistically Hill End is the closest to Lucas Heights and that makes me sick in my stomach to the point of tears.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think they were going to put a nuclear dump on my doorstep.
“I’m a naturally shy person. I surprised myself by what I have accomplished.
“I’m bloody sure they had no idea how hard we would fight.
“We’ve got our smarts, but none of us have degrees in Environmental Science.
“It just goes to show what ordinary people can do when their backs are to the wall.”