- Indigenous owners said Rio Tinto continued to load explosives above the site despite promising to delay the blast at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region.
- The submission by the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation read that due to the destruction of the heritage site, local people suffered emotionally and spiritually.
- The Senate inquiry would present its final report on 9 December 2020.
- Following the blast, Rio Tinto CEO and two other senior executives resigned in September 2020.
The impact of the blasts at Juukan Gorge in the Western Australia's Pilbara region is still being felt. In May 2020, Rio Tinto Plc (LON: RIO) destroyed the 46,000-year-old heritage site. In a detailed submission to a Senate inquiry looking into the chain of events, the traditional owners said that despite promising to delay the blast, Rio Tinto continued to load explosives above the site.
The submission by the Puutu Kunti Kurrama Pinikura (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation highlighted that the blast on 24 May has devastated their community and they are going through a massive emotional, spiritual, and physical pain. The owners of Juukan Gorge stressed that the mining major gave them incomplete information, besides publicly misrepresenting the consultation that took place. They added that the mining company’s description about the importance of the aboriginal heritage sites to government authorities was inappropriate.
The mining major ignored the requests and concerns from the owners that were raised months before the blast destroyed the site. The submission mentioned that days up to the blast, Rio Tinto continued to load charges around the Juukan 1 and Juukan 2. The group said that Rio Tinto did not have any legal permission to destroy the historical site and they had never sought advice on removing the explosives.
Besides, the submission stated that the owners were not happy with the overextended time. Rio Tinto could not undertake necessary actions on their suggestions or inputs from archaeologists and anthropologists regarding the cultural significance of the Juukan Gorge rockshelters. The destruction has depicted that the company’s operational mindset was driven by maximisation of profit and observance to minimum standards of the law.
The Anglo-Australian mining major had reiterated that due to safety and environmental risks, it could not remove the explosives planted at the site.
However, the PKKP group noted that after their request to Rio Tinto, around 40 per cent (or nearly 156) of the 382 drilled holes around the gorge, including those nearest to the rockshelters, were not loaded with explosives.
The PKKP said that it had hired lawyers for lodging an injunction or an emergency appeal under the federal heritage legislation. However, it did not go ahead with its appeal plans as Rio Tinto said that delaying the blast could lead to a safety risk.
The traditional owners added that the company did not seek advice regarding the practicability of removing explosives so that the rockshelters could have been saved from destruction.
On 20 May, PKKP’s lawyer had got in touch with the office of Ken Wyatt, the federal Indigenous affairs minister and was told by a senior adviser that Sussan Ley, the environment minister was responsible for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act. Thereafter, the PKKP’s lawyer contacted the minister’s office and flagged an emergency declaration under the Act.
The next day, Ashurst, the commercial law firm for Rio Tinto sent an email to PKKP’s lawyer stating that the PKKP within a deal with Rio Tinto cannot speak publicly and that could prompt the forfeiture of payments.
In 2013, the WA government permitted Rio Tinto to secure a permission to destroy the two rockshelters. As per the agreement with Rio Tinto, PKKP relinquished its right for objecting to destroy the heritage or raise concerns in the media.
The company said that it would not pay the PKKP any royalties as the mining lease was granted in 1964 and the claim for the native title was submitted only in 2001. The company, however, agreed on paying royalties for new mines, including Brockman 4. Rio Tinto told the Senate inquiry in August 2020 that it considered several options for the mine that would have avoided damage to the rockshelters but opted to pursue an additional $134 million in high-grade iron ore.
The PKKP completely rejected any suggestions that they provided free, prior, and informed consent for destroying the area. On 9 December, the Senate inquiry is due to present its final report.
On 12 October, at 12.32 PM, the company’s stock (LON: RIO) was trading at £4,746.50 down 1.09 per cent from its Friday’s close of £4,800.50. The 52-week low high range was recorded as 2,968.00 and 5,135.00. With a market capitalisation of £59,847.92 million, the stock provided a positive return on price, which was plus 6.05 per cent on a year-to-date (YTD) basis. The total volume of shares traded at the time of reporting was recorded at 479,772.
Four months after the blast, many experts believe that the Melbourne-based mining and metal company is deceptive about the matter. Others felt that the company needed to act correctly and deal with the situation wisely that has led to a disaster. Such incidents call for additional and continued engagement with the local community to avoid any problems, suggested industry experts.