Swiss mining giant Glencore says it will consider withdrawing its current request for Northern Territory government intervention in a dispute over the future of the controversial McArthur River Mine, as a sign of good faith ahead of fresh negotiations with Traditional Owners.
The company used its appearance before a federal parliamentary inquiry examining destruction of ancient rock shelters at Juukan Gorge and other sites around Australia to formally apologise to Traditional Owners for the company's past actions.
Gudanji, Garrawa, Yanyuwa and Marra Traditional Owners have previously told the inquiry of their fears their sacred sites were being "slowly erased" by the actions of the massive lead and zinc mine, near the Gulf community of Borroloola, and 970km south east of Darwin.
"We want to acknowledge that the mine, and in particular the diversion of the McArthur River in 2006, continues to be a source of sadness (for Traditional Owners) and has had an impact on Country," McArthur River Mine general manager Steven Rooney told the hearing.
"Today, we as Glencore, the current operators of the McArthur River Mine, want to offer an apology and say sorry to Indigenous people and Traditional Owners of the four language groups of the Gudanji, the Yanyuwa, the Garrawa and the Mara."
Land use talks still in very early stages
Glencore is working with the Northern Land Council on a new Indigenous Land Use Agreement to cover the proposed future expansion of the mine, but admitted the work was still in its early stages with no proposed date yet for a meeting with the community.
The Northern Land Council's (NLC) chief executive officer Marion Scrymgour welcomed the apology "for all the terrible things" that had been done in the past, but said the NLC and traditional owners were waiting to see how the company now "steps up" to reach a proper agreement over the mine, which addresses the community's concerns.
"From the NLC's point of view, actions speak louder than words," Ms Scrymgour told the hearing.
McArthur River Mine has been seeking approval in recent years over the future of the mine, which includes expanding the height of a volatile waste rock dump, which Traditional Owners say would block the view of the sacred Barramundi Dreaming site.
Two years ago, the AAPA rejected Glencore’s application for sacred sites certification, which is one of the requirements for approval for the waste rock dump expansion, because of inadequate consultation.
Glencore told the hearing it got the sign-off from just six Aboriginal family groups in Borroloola.
"We certainly recognise that expectations have changed and hence why... we have engaged in the ILUA process with Traditional Owners, and obviously engaged with the Northern Land Council to help us facilitate that process," Mr Rooney said.
Glencore says its open to other options to save sites
Glencore has appealed AAPA’s decision to reject their application to the NT Heritage Minister Chancey Paech, who must decide whether to support the company's application or uphold the AAPA’s decision.
Glencore used today's hearing to call for "greater transparency and accountability of relevant statutory bodies to provide clearer guidance to project proponents on who are the custodians of sacred sites".
Mr Rooney said Glencore was considering whether to withdraw its application for ministerial review, as a sign of good faith to Traditional Owners as it embarked on the ILUA process.
"We're currently reviewing that application and really the need for it (as) we are going down this ILUA process," Mr Rooney said.
He also said the company was open to considering alternatives to expanding the height of the waste rock dump, and the footprint which, as currently proposed, will destroy an ancient quarry site known as MRM4.
"We are certainly open to other options and hence the ILUA to have those discussions with traditional owners," Mr Rooney said.
"There are other options to expand the waste rock pile in other directions if required."