• The site at Juukan Gorge in WA's Pilbara region, after Rio Tinto's blast took place. (Supplied: PKKP )Source: Supplied: PKKP
Rio Tinto chief executive Chris Sailsbury tells employees that the mining giant was actually not apologising for destroying 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters, as a dispute continues elsewhere in the Kimberley region over granite mining on traditional lands.
Rangi Hirini

15 Jun 2020 - 3:07 PM  UPDATED 15 Jun 2020 - 3:12 PM

A recording of a Rio Tinto staff meeting has revealed the mining company is ‘not sorry’ for blowing up the 46,000 rock shelters at the Juukan Gorge.

In audio obtained by the Financial Review, Rio Tinto Chief Executive Chris Sailsbury was reportedly responding to an employee's complaint over how the company responded to criticism of the blast, when he said "That's why we haven't apologised for the event itself, per se, but apologised for the distress the event caused."

Mr Sailsbury also told staff in the meeting that they still had the backing of top government figures, saying he had spoken with a range of external stakeholders and "quietly, there is still support for us out there."

The revelations come days after a report by The Australian discussed leaked emails that showed the mining giant was aware of the significance of the Juukan Gorge before the blast, despite continuing to deny it.

Mr Sailsbury claimed that “recently expressed concerns of the (Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura ­people) did not arise through the engagements that have taken place over many years”.

But the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation said they had stressed the importance of the Juukan Gorge to Rio Tinto a number of times, including in a 2015 documentary of the area, which was funded by the mining company.

WA minister says his office not made aware of blast threat to Juukan Gorge
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.

"Moon Dreaming" site under threat

The Kimberley Land Council (KLC) has revealed cultural significant sites in the region's East have been destroyed by large-scale granite mining operations, approximately 50 kilometres north of Halls Creek.

The area is part of an significant site called “Moon Dreaming” (Garnkiny) made famous in the artworks of senior Malarngowem Traditional Owner Mabel Juli.

In March, the Kimberley Granite Holdings applied for approval to mine in the area under section 18 of the state's Aboriginal Heritage Act. On June 4, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt denied it due to the sites' cultural significance.

But three days later, an aerial viewing of the site by Traditional Owners and KLC uncovered ongoing operations.

According to KLC, Kimberley Granite advised the State that they had ceased operations on June 3.

Elder and custodian Rusty Peters said he was shocked to learn of the destruction of the site. 

“I didn’t know about it. I didn’t give the company permission. I didn’t give anyone authority to make this decision for me,” Mr Peters said in a statement.

“I thought it had stopped. This makes me very worried as I have to give permission for such things to happen on Darrajayn country. I’m not going to stop worrying, white people cutting our culture up." he said. 

The Malarngowem Traditional Owners informed Kimberley Granite of the significance of the sites in March and told them they should stop the works, restore the site and enter into a heritage protection agreement to prevent further damage. The Kimberley Lands Council said that offer was declined.

“Whilst we welcome the Minister declining the Section 18 application, it didn’t stop the damage being done and it can’t undo that damage now,” KLC CEO Nolan Hunter said.

“The Malarngowem Traditional Owners should not be forced to sit back and watch their cultural sites being destroyed when the Government, who is supposed to protect our cultural heritage, has the power to act."

According to The West, a Kimberley Granite Holdings spokesman said it had not knowingly impacted heritage sites and said TOs had told them "that there was nothing at the quarry site that the company should be concerned about".

The state Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage will investigate.

BHP promises not to destroy Banjima sacred sites in the Pilbara
The mining giant has put plans to destroy dozens of sacred sites in the Pilbara on hold, after backlash over Rio Tinto blowing up 46,000 year old rock shelters in the same region.