Rio Tinto to review plans for Aboriginal site

The Pilbara landscape Image: Rio Tinto

Rio Tinto intends to urgently review mining plans at the Juukan Gorge area in Western Australia after the company detonated explosives at a sacred Indigenous site.

This destroyed two ancient rock shelters, which devastated the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people.

Rio Tinto received ministerial consent for the blast in 2013.

“We pay our respects to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP), and we are sorry for the distress we have caused. Our relationship with the PKKP matters a lot to Rio Tinto, having worked together for many years,” Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Chris Salisbury said.

The cave in Juukan Gorge, about 60 kilometres from Mt Tom Price, is one of the oldest in the western Pilbara region and the only inland site in Australia to show signs of continual human occupation through the last Ice Age.

The blast was part of Rio Tinto’s plans to expand its proposed Brockman 4 iron ore mine, which is fully owned and operated by the company and is one of its 13 iron ore mines in the Pilbara.

The Brockman 4 is located near the existing Brockman mine, which has been running since 2010.

Salisbury said Rio Tinto had been operating on the PKKP country under a “comprehensive and mutually agreed” Participation Agreement since 2011.

“At Juukan, in partnership with the PKKP, we followed a heritage approval process for more than 10 years. In 2014 we performed a large-scale exercise in the Juukan area to preserve significant cultural heritage artefacts, recovering approximately 7000 objects,” he added.

Despite the ministerial consent received by Rio Tinto under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, critics said the act was outdated and needed revising.

A review of the Aboriginal Heritage Act in 2011 resulted in two rounds of public consultation, leading the Western Australian Government to release the Aboriginal Heritage Amendment Bill in June 2014.

The Bill was subsequently lapsed at the dissolution of the 39th Parliament in November 2016.

Western Australia’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt said on Twitter last week that the blast was a “terrible outcome” and the result of a legislation that did not acknowledge the value of heritage.

“We will fix that,” the minister tweeted on Thursday.

Salisbury said Rio Tinto would continue to work with the PKKP on the matter.

“We will continue to work with the PKKP to learn from what has taken place and strengthen our partnership. As a matter of urgency, we are reviewing the plans of all other sites in the Juukan Gorge area,” he said.

“From a broader perspective, as we already work within all existing frameworks, we will launch a comprehensive review of our heritage approach, engaging traditional owners to help identify, understand and recommend ways to improve the process.”

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.