The mining giant Rio Tinto still holds 1,780 approvals to destroy Aboriginal sacred sites in the Pilbara, senior executives have told a parliamentary inquiry into the company’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old sacred site at Juukan Gorge in May.
The 1,780 approvals remain valid while Western Australia’s outdated Aboriginal heritage laws are being reviewed, which means the company can legally destroy the sites. But the executives said every one of them was being reviewed for their “potential impact”, in partnership with the traditional owners.
Rio’s global chief, Jean-Sébastien Jacques, its iron ore boss, Chris Salisbury, and its corporate affairs boss, Simone Niven, gave evidence to the Australian inquiry for a second time on Friday under very different circumstances from their first appearance in August.
All three are stepping down over the company’s handling of the destruction of a 46,000-year-old rock shelter at Juukan Gorge, deemed to be of the highest archaeological significance in Australia – an example of industry conduct the WA Labor senator Pat Dodson labelled “incremental genocide”.
Jacques said none of them had been aware of the site’s “extreme archaeological and cultural significance” until after it was destroyed, although “they should have been”. But he said others in the company had known since 2005.
In tense and awkward exchanges with MPs, Jacques, Salisbury and Niven took responsibility for “missed opportunities” and “poor decisions” over several years that led to the destruction of the caves.
“The explosion should not have occurred,” Salisbury said. “[The caves] should not have been included in the mine plans. There was no intent of deception, but clearly mistakes have been made.
“We have no precise clarity about who made that decision [to include the caves in the the mine plan]. It was a poor decision and it was wrong.”
Salisbury said Rio hadn’t told the Puutu Kunti Kuurama and Pinikura peoples about its blast plans because “we believed we had consent”. After the PKKP pleaded at the 11th hour to stop the blast, Salisbury said it had been his decision to go ahead because removing the charges would have been too dangerous for employees on site, and “the safety of my employees is always my highest priority”.
The WA Greens senator Rachel Siewert said she found it “mind-boggling” that the company could “just write off 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage like that, just write it off. Just unbelievable.”
Rio’s general manager, Brad Welsh, said there was a moratorium on a 57sq km area around the Brockman 4 mine site, which would be an area of “perpetual protection”.
Niven, responsible for Indigenous community relations since 2017, admitted that she had never once visited the site and had visited “maybe three or four” of Rio’s other Pilbara sites. She also revealed that the only meeting she had sought or held with the PKKP was after they had made a submission to the inquiry in late September.
The explosion was a source of “great regret”, Niven said, about which “we did drop the ball”.
The WA Liberal senator Dean Smith interrupted: “I think that understates the significance of what happened.
“Do you take full responsibility or part responsibility for what happened?” he asked.
Niven replied: “As I said, I’m stepping down. I take responsibility for the part I played, senator.”
This week the PKKP spoke about how the blast had left them “devastated”.
“Myself, my family, our elders and our ancestors are in mourning at the desecration of our sacred site,” said a traditional owner, Burchell Hayes. “The disaster has now left a gaping hole in our ability to pass on our heritage to our children and grandchildren.
“When I heard, I was driving to Port Hedland with two of my grandsons. It felt terrible as a grandfather that I was not able to preserve the heritage that was on loan to me.”
In August Rio Tinto told the inquiry it had considered three options for the mine that would have avoided damage to the rock shelters but had chosen a fourth to pursue an additional $134m in high-grade iron ore.
On Friday Salisbury called that decision “a mistake”.
The company confirmed it was working with the PKKP to set up a keeping place for artefacts and objects salvaged from the site, including a 4,000-year-old belt of plaited human hair that shows a direct genetic link to modern-day PKKP people. They are now being housed in a non-air conditioned shipping container on site.
At the end of Friday’s session, Dodson was scathing in his assessment.
“Anyone that’s been listening to this inquiry clearly gets the impression that the industry – and you’ve typified it to some degree – the lack of free prior and informed consent, the forcing of people into contracting out their rights, the management of culture that ties traditional owners and takes advantage of weak laws, would have to draw the conclusion that this is a form of incremental genocide, and the destruction of sites which is the evidentiary base of the oldest living culture in this country,” he said.
“As an international company do you have any recollection that this is what you are currently, and have been, participating in?”
After a pause, Jacques replied: “Senator, I can only restate how sorry we are. It should have never happened.”