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Inquiry begins into ‘accidental’ ancient rock shelter detonation

Rio Tinto Brockman 4 Iron Ore Expansion
Rio Tinto Brockman 4 Iron Ore Expansion

A federal investigation will hear a multinational mining company made several errors that led to the unintentional explosion of two ancient Aboriginal sites during a metal mine expansion in Western Australia’s Pilbara.

Rio Tinto will be grilled on August 7 at the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia’s inquiry into the May 24 detonation of two rock shelters, which allegedly contained artefacts estimated to be 46,000-years-old.

Safer options rejected

Company chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques is widely expected to reveal back in 2012 and 2013 his employer considered four options to excavate the first pit at Juukan Gorge as part of the Brockman 4 Iron Ore Expansion, 55km northwest of Tom Price.

“Three [options] avoided the shelters to varying distances [while] the fourth option impacted the rock shelters in order to access higher volumes of high-grade ore, and was the option that was chosen by Rio Tinto,” the mining giant said in a submission to the inquiry.

‘Missed opportunities’

Rio commissioned an ethnographic survey in 2014 that found the rock shelters were of great cultural significance but this did not affect the decision to use explosives closer to the structures.

“It is clear that various opportunities were missed to re-evaluate the mine plan in light of this material new information,” the company said. “A further opportunity was missed in 2018, with the publication of the final report on the archaeological excavations at Juukan 2 conducted during 2014.”

The proponent still proceeded with its plans after more evidence of cultural heritage emerged about the wider Juukan Gorge area at the beginning of 2020.

“Several further opportunities were missed at this stage to pause and reflect on whether the agreed plan of ex situ preservation of the heritage material discovered within the rock shelters was sufficient or whether the rock shelters themselves should be also preserved,” the company said.

Too late

By the time the native Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP) formally requested a suspension of mining activities, the damage was already done. Grinding stones, a bone sharpened into a tool and 4000-year-old braided hair were destroyed in the blast.

Rio maintains the project already had consent from the PKKP and both state and federal approval dating back to 2013.

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The company has started an internal board-led review to identify and implement further changes to internal cultural heritage management systems, processes and governance. Findings will be made public once the review is complete.

Rio employs more than 1450 Indigenous Australians and 65.5 per cent of them work for the Western Australian iron ore business. About $210 million has already been spent on goods and services provided by 56 Indigenous businesses in the year 2019.

Click here to read Rio’s full submission to the inquiry.

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