National

Rio ‘missed chances’ to stop Juukan blast

By AAP Newswire

Mining giant Rio Tinto has admitted it overlooked significant new information about the cultural significance of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters when it proceeded with destroying the ancient sites in Western Australia's north.

Rio sparked international outrage in May when it blew up the 46,000-year-old landmarks on Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) country in the Pilbara region.

The company had secured consent under WA's Aboriginal Heritage Act but has since apologised to the traditional owners.

A Senate inquiry is examining the destruction.

In a submission to the inquiry published on Tuesday, Rio apologised to the PKKP people and said it was determined to ensure the destruction of such exceptionally significant cultural heritage sites was never repeated.

"The destruction of the Juukan rock shelters should not have occurred," the company said.

Rio said it had begun negotiations with the PKKP in 2003 and reached an agreement in 2011 to proceed with mining operations after commissioning ethnographic and archaeological surveys of the area containing the Juukan shelters.

A list of 16 areas of high cultural significance identified by the PKKP did not include the Juukan sites, Rio said.

But new information came to light when another ethnographic survey was conducted in 2013, the same year Rio was granted approval for the project.

Three archaeological excavations of the rock shelters were also conducted in 2014.

"As a result of these surveys, material new information on the significance of the Juukan rock shelters became available to the PKKP and Rio Tinto," Rio's submission said.

"It is clear that various opportunities were missed to re-evaluate the mine plan in light of this material new information."

A further opportunity was missed in 2018 when a final report on the 2014 excavations was published, revealing the uncovering of 7000 artefacts including grinding stones, a bone sharpened into a tool and 4000-year-old braided hair.

"From early 2020, there also appears to have been growing awareness within the PKKP, and within Rio Tinto, of the greater cultural heritage significance of the wider Juukan Gorge area," Rio said.

"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."

PKKP representative John Ashburton said the Juukan destruction had left traditional owners deeply troubled and saddened.

Rio chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques will front the Senate inquiry on Friday.

"As a first priority our aim is to strengthen our partnership with the PKKP. That remains our focus," he said on Tuesday.

"We have also taken actions to strengthen governance, controls and approvals on heritage matters."