Rio Tinto compensation call after NT mining town Nhulunbuy left in dark for 17 hours

A major blackout saw a Northern Territory town without power for 17 hours, leaving businesses reeling from a loss of stock and residents frustrated at a lack of communication from mining firm Rio Tinto.

Nhulunbuy MLA Yingiya Guyula called on the mining giant to “provide compensation for loss of income” to businesses hit hard by last week’s power outage in Nhulunbuy and nearby Indigenous communities.

Business owners reported thousands of dollars’ worth of spoiled produce and expensive generator fees when the power went on Thursday night until Friday afternoon.

They said it was the latest in a rising trend of long, frequent outages in the East Arnhem Land town, where Rio Tinto was responsible for the power supply.

“It’s beyond a joke,” said Gove Warehouse owner Bob van Oostrum.

“There have been umpteen outages lately that have been so inconvenient and so expensive, sometimes for a whole day.”

Gove Warehouse managing director Bob van Oostrum says the outages are “beyond a joke”.(ABC News: Matt Garrick)

The long-time Nhulunbuy businessman said he’d spent more than $10,000 in the past financial year running his emergency generator to keep his warehouse doors open and stop produce from spoiling in the neighbouring Refinery Cafe.

Rio Tinto did not immediately commit to compensating businesses for lost stock or hardship due to the outages, but a spokesman said the firm was “assessing the impact of the outage on the community, including businesses”.

Town businesses lose thousands in stock, trade

Peninsula Bakery owner Estelle Carter said her business lost thousands of dollars in stock and takings and was forced to shut up shop for the latest blackout’s duration.

“We’ve lost the day’s trade … that’s several thousand dollars,” Ms Carter said.

“It’s quite a significant financial loss, on top of all the COVID-19 restrictions and the impact that’s had on our business, it’s really a massive kick to the stomach.”

Bakers John and Estelle Carter stand at the counter of a bakery with serious expressions. Behind them, a customer is served.
Peninsula Bakery owners John and Estelle Carter lost thousands of dollars worth of produce and takings.

Blue Douglas, the owner of Arafura Meats, said Rio Tinto failed to properly communicate during the sustained overnight outage.

“I’m left lying in bed in the middle of the night, thinking about my neighbours … ‘Do I get up and turn the generator on to keep my produce cold?'” Mr Douglas said.

“And I’m not getting any information off Rio.

“This is a very common thing with power outages from Rio, they promise an update, and then six, seven hours later there’s nothing.”

Indigenous communities also affected: Guyula

Nhulunbuy MLA Mr Guyula said the power outages had also been “very difficult” for the nearby Indigenous communities of Yirrkala, Gunyangara and Biritjimi.

“Our remote towns should have reliable and sustainable power infrastructure.”

Aboriginal leader Yingiya Guyula with a mural of crocodiles behind him.
Nhulunbuy MLA Yingiya Guyula says Rio Tinto should compensate businesses hit hard by frequent power outages.(ABC News: Matt Garrick)

Eddie Mulholland, the boss of Indigenous health service Miwatj Health said if the outages continued it would also impact on vulnerable Yolngu patients.

“Because it was a cool night it was probably OK, but if that’s going to happen in the future in the wet season when it’s really hot, those people would be suffering through it,” Mr Mulholland said.

Union filing formal complaint over outages

A Rio Tinto spokesman said last week’s blackout was caused by two faults “which added complexity and significant time to the restoration of power”.

“There have been 12 unplanned outages this year due to a mix of environmental factors, including lightning and bird strikes, equipment faults and power station faults,” the spokesman said.

Planning was underway, he said, to ensure long-term “safe and reliable power” to the region.

A photo which shows Gove refinery from the air. Gove Operations is located on the Gove Peninsula in North East Arnhem land.
Rio Tinto is responsible for power generation on the Gove Peninsula.(Supplied: Blue Douglas)

The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) said it was putting forward a formal complaint over the outages.

“Rio Tinto are the major player in town, they have an obligation to the Gove community,” said ETU NT organiser Dave Hayes.

He said the complaint would soon be submitted to the NT’s independent industry regulator, the Utilities Commission.

Miwatj Health CEO Eddie Mulholland looks seriously at the camera. He is wearing a white shirt.
Miwatj Health CEO Eddie Mulholland says continued blackouts could pose a health risk.(ABC News: Michael Donnelly)

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Nhulunbuy woman Cheryl Pryor gained $10,000 in donations after faking cancer diagnosis

A woman who faked a cancer diagnosis and gained more than $10,000 in donations from a small Northern Territory community has been sentenced to eight months’ home detention.

Cheryl Pryor, 40, told her husband and a close friend in early 2019 she had been diagnosed with terminal leukemia and throat cancer while away in Sydney.

Her friend, whose husband had previously had cancer, organised a GoFundMe online fundraiser to cover Pryor’s medical treatment and travel between the remote Territory town of Nhulunbuy and Sydney, where Pryor said she would receive chemotherapy.

The fundraiser gained more than $14,000 in donations, $10,000 of which went directly to Pryor.

“While she didn’t ask outright [for the fundraiser] it was a very manipulative way in which she went about it,” Crown Prosecutor Naomi Loudon said.

Pryor’s friend organised a fundraiser to cover Pryor’s medical treatment and travel.(Provided: Facebook)

Police alerted to the scam

After police were alerted to the suspected fraud and discovered Pryor was not a patient at the Sydney hospital she claimed to be, Pryor called the police investigator and pretended to be an oncologist’s personal assistant by the name of Debbie Smith.

“Investigations revealed that Westmead Private Hospital held no records for the treatment of the offender … subsequent inquiries revealed that the telephone call was made from the offender’s telephone that she was in Darwin at the time,” read the Crown facts of the case.

Pryor then wrote a letter for police, purported to be written by Debbie Smith, asserting that Pryor was under the care of a Professor Carter in Sydney.

Pryor also told police and her friend she’d been stabbed in the leg while away in Sydney.

Cheryl Pryor is playing with her phone as she walks up the steps of a courthouse. Her head is down.
Pryor told her husband and a close friend in early 2019 she’d been diagnosed with terminal leukemia and throat cancer.(ABC News: Michael Donnelly)

‘It spiralled beyond her control’

Pryor’s defence counsel, Nicola MacCarron, told the court the 40-year-old was trying to end her marriage at the time and “she knows now she should have handled things in a different manner”.

“She found herself in a situation she couldn’t get herself out of … it spiralled beyond her control,” Ms MacCarron told the court.

The Northern Territory Supreme Court heard the woman who organised the online fundraiser had been left “sad and angry”.

The GoFundMe aimed to fund travel between Nhulunbuy and Sydney, where Pryor said she would receive chemotherapy.(Flickr: John Benwell)

Pryor pleaded guilty to four fraud-related charges, including obtaining a benefit by deception and attempting to pervert the course of justice.

She was sentenced to 18 months in prison, suspended upon entry into eight months of home detention.

Pryor will likely have to repay the $10,000 she received.

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