Pressure Remains on Mining Giant Rio Tinto Over Juukan Blast

By AAP
December 9, 2020 Updated: December 23, 2020

Mining giant Rio Tinto will face continued scrutiny after a scathing parliamentary report into the destruction of the ancient Juukan Gorge caves.

The Northern Australia Committee has tabled its interim report into the “inexcusable” blast, having heard months of evidence from key players and Indigenous groups.

Rio blew up the 46,000-year-old rock shelters in Western Australia’s Pilbara region in May to extract $188 million worth of high-grade iron ore.

The traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people, were left devastated and the incident sparked global outrage.

The cross-party committee has called upon Rio to negotiate compensation with the PKKP, reconstruct and remediate the site, and promise never to mine there.

It has also urged Rio to refrain from applying to destroy sites until WA’s heritage laws have been improved or stronger protocols are negotiated with traditional owners.

The PKKP said they hoped the report would prompt a “fundamental reset” of relationships between traditional owners and mining companies.

“We have started the long road to healing and repairing our relationship with Rio Tinto, but there is still a long way to go,” PKKP Aboriginal Corporation spokesman Burchell Hayes said.

Liberal senator Dean Smith told parliament Rio’s actions would be further scrutinised in a final report next year, labelling the company’s response “shallow”.

“As far as I’m concerned, Rio Tinto—including its chairman and its board—are still on notice,” he said.

Rio had approval under WA’s outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act, but has since apologised and conceded the blast should not have happened.

Expert reports had outlined the caves’ outstanding archaeological and cultural significance long before they were blown up.

Chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques, corporate relations chief Simone Niven and iron ore boss Chris Salisbury resigned in September amid significant investor pressure.

Rio is reviewing participation agreements struck with Pilbara traditional owners and has agreed to a temporary moratorium on mining in the Juukan Gorge area.

It has also pledged not to enforce any potential gag orders against Indigenous groups.

“We recognise the destruction of the Juukan rockshelters caused significant pain to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people and we are working very hard to progress a remedy with them,” chairman Simon Thompson said.

By Michael Ramsey in Perth