• PKKP Traditional Owner Harold Ashburton at Juukan Gorge. (PKKP Aboriginal Corporation.)Source: PKKP Aboriginal Corporation.
Rio Tinto executives tell the inquiry into the destruction of Juukan Gorge that it was a "poor decision" to not present Traditional Owners with all the options to expand their Brockman mine site in WA's Pilbara.
Keira Jenkins

16 Oct 2020 - 5:04 PM  UPDATED 16 Oct 2020 - 5:04 PM

Rio Tinto has admitted to a senate inquiry into the destruction of ancient rock shelters at Juukan Gorge that it "missed opportunities" to discuss the significance of the site with Traditional Owners.

Rio Tinto previously told the inquiry it had four options to expand its Brockman mine in Western Australia's Pilbara region, three of which would not have destroyed the 46,000-year-old rock shelters.

Instead, the company chose a fourth option which saw the culturally significant caves detonated.

This week Puutu Kunti Kurrama Pinikura (PKKP) Traditional Owners told the inquiry they were not presented with any of those options.

Representatives from Rio Tinto said it was not clear who made the ultimate decision to blow up the rock shelters.

Former Rio Tinto executive, Chris Salisbury, who stepped down from his position following the public outcry following the destruction, admitted "mistakes were made" in not communicating the plans to PKKP Traditional Owners.

“We have not been able to arrive at precise clarity on who exactly made that decision and why those options were not presented to the PKKP," Salisbury said.

"However, not showing the proposed plans to Traditional Owners was clearly a very poor decision and was wrong.” 

Salisbury claimed Traditional Owners weren't approached before the area was loaded with explosives because the site was not on a national heritage list.

The inquiry heard that another senior executive, Simone Niven – who is also stepping down from Rio Tinto at the end of the year – had never visited the Brockman mine in WA, despite being the person responsible for heritage matters.

Niven told the inquiry she did not know about the significance of the rock shelters at Juukan Gorge. On Friday, she told the inquiry it was "a great regret" and that Rio Tinto had "dropped the ball" on sharing information.

The inquiry previously heard evidence pertaining to 'gag clauses' that prevent Traditional Owners from speaking publicly about cultural heritage concerns.

Such clauses restrained PKKP from speaking out against Rio Tinto's mining operations, the inquiry heard.

Acting Rio Tinto general manager, Brad Welsh, said the mining company is no longer enforcing these clauses. 

"The commitment we've made is not enforcing any clauses in our agreements that prevent Traditional Owners from applying for statutory protection on any cultural heritage sites," he said.

Fortescue asked to front inquiry again

Following revelations from Traditional Owner groups earlier this week, the inquiry requested Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) appear before the committee.

The allegations against FMG include claims the company has withheld royalties from Eastern Guruma Traditional Owners after they requested more information be provided before they would sign off on agreements involving new mining leases presented to them by the company.

“We have asked FMG to reconsider their position and they have advised us that they will only pay the royalties when we sign off on the mining leases,” Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation director Joselyn Hicks said on Tuesday.

On Monday, it was revealed that the PKKP Traditional Owners were upset that FMG had applied in late September to convert its prospecting leases into mining permits on an area that Traditional Owners have secured a moratorium on mining over with Rio Tinto.

When Rio Tinto executives were asked about FMG's plans, they said they had only been made aware of the situation after the PKKP Traditional Owners gave evidence at the inquiry.

Rio Tinto said it was unlikely FMG could secure a mining lease in the surrounds of Juukan Gorge, as the moratorium area covers more than 50 square kilometres.

Mr Welsh said there are other significant sites across the designated moratorium area that FMG had applied to mine.

"There are other areas that we're aware of and we are in discussions with PKKP about better understanding that area and the cultural heritage," he said.

Eastern Guruma Traditional Owners say their royalties have been withheld over refusal to sign new mining leases
Eastern Guruma Traditional Owners have told an inquiry into the destruction of 46,000 year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge Frotescue Metals has been withholding royalties owed to them after they refused to sign off on new mining leases.