• The before and after of Juukan Gorge following a legal mining blast conducted by Rio Tinto in Western Australia's Pilbara region in 2020. (NITV)Source: NITV
State minister denies prior knowledge of destruction of 'deep time' Aboriginal heritage sites in Western Australia’s Pilbara region as mining giant issues formal apology.
Rangi Hirini, Jack Latimore, Shahni Wellington

1 Jun 2020 - 3:10 PM  UPDATED 1 Jun 2020 - 3:16 PM

The Western Australia minster for Aboriginal Affairs has told ABC News on Monday that his office was unaware of the impending destruction of two rock shelters by a mining giant in the Pilbara region of the state's north west.

Ben Wyatt, who also fills the role of Treasurer for the WA government, told ABC RN Breakfast's Fran Kelly that that he learnt of the incident only after the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation (PKKP) issued a statement expressing their anger over the destruction.

"Whilst that may sound unusual ... under the Aboriginal Heritage Act ... the approvals of the destruction or the damage for that site were given way back in 2013, and once those approvals are given there is no requirement for updating them, they're not time constrained, etcetera," said Mr Wyatt.

Mr Wyatt also said that his office was often contacted by groups expressing their concerns and opposition to approvals prior to them being actioned, and that upon becoming aware of the destruction, he found it "unusual" that his office hadn't been contacted "prior to detonation" for assistance with the Brockman 4 iron ore mine site.  

On Sunday, Rio Tinto apologised for the blasting within Juukan Gorge that led to the destruction of the ancient rock shelters.

“We pay our respects to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP), and we are sorry for the distress we have caused," said Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Chris Salisbury in the written statement.

"As a matter of urgency, we are reviewing the plans of all other sites in the Juukan Gorge area."

The statement said the company had launched a "comprehensive review" of its heritage approach, including its engagement with Traditional Owners, to identify ways to understand and recommend ways to improve the process." 

“As a company with strong ties and a long history of partnership with Indigenous Australians we are committed to updating our practices and working together so that we can co-exist for mutual benefit,” said Mr Salisbury.

On Saturday, the PKKP hit back at earlier claims made by Rio Tinto that the PKKP did not communicate the 'deep-time' heritage site's significance or their desire to preserve the rock shelters. 

“PKKP Aboriginal Corporation has, on numerous occasions since 2013, communicated to Rio Tinto the significance of Juukan Gorge, in particular the rock shelters in the area,” Puutu Kunti Kurrama spokesperson Burchell Hayes said in a written statement.

“At all times the PKKPAC has been direct and explicit in the archaeological and ethnographic significance of these rock shelters and the importance that they be preserved. For Rio Tinto to suggest otherwise is incorrect.”

Archaeologists have previously said excavations of the cave had revealed signs of human occupation going back 46,000 years and a direct genetic link to its present day Traditional Owners.

PKKP said it had communicated the high significance of the site as recently as March.

Prior to that, PKKP said it had told Rio Tinto the significance of Juukan Gorge on a number of occasions, including an independent ethnographic report in 2013, a report by Scarp Archaeology in 2015, and a documentary commissioned by the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation for PKKP also in 2015.

“The fact remains that Rio Tinto did not advise the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation of its intention to blast the area in the vicinity of Juukan 1 and 2 and our staff only found out by default on May 15 when we sought access to the area for NAIDOC Week in July,” he said. 

Last Friday, in an interview with ABC radio, the Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, confirmed that his office had been made aware blasting was to occur after being contacted by a concerned PKKP member. 

Mr Wyatt said that representative was encouraged to pursue the concern through the formal federal process.

''I was anticipating the lawyer coming back through the Commonwealth processes on behalf of the Elders," said Mr Wyatt in the ABC interview.

''That appears not to have eventuated.

Mr Wyatt said the incident proved WA's Aboriginal Protection Act was "inadequate".

"It is clear, in this instance, that the state legislation has failed. That is what we need to look into in the first instance," he said.

"What this does show is that the interaction between state and federal Indigenous legislation is not optimal at present."

NITV News approached Mr Wyatt on Monday for further comment. 

One of the country’s oldest Aboriginal heritage sites destroyed by mining blast
An Aboriginal heritage site in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, which provided insight to the earliest human population that inhabited the western Hamersley Plateau, has been destroyed by mining blasts.