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Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO) - Outgoing CEO, Jean Sébastien Jacques - The Market Herald
Outgoing CEO, Jean Sébastien Jacques
Source: Mining.com
  • Rio Tinto (RIO) has released a detailed submission to the Australian Parliamentary Inquiry, admitting its regret for blasting the Juukan Gorge rock shelters in WA
  • In late May this year, the mining giant destroyed an archaeologically significant 46,000 year-old Aboriginal heritage site
  • Since then, Rio has been stormed with backlash for blasting the heritage site in a quest to expand its Brockman 4 iron ore mine
  • Unfortunately, Traditional Landowners - the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people were not involved in the decision-making process and were not made fully aware of the blast until it was too late to stop it
  • Since then, Rio's CEO, Jean-Sébastien Jacques has frequently apologised for the tragedy and is prioritising a review on heritage management processes and gaining back the trust of the Traditional Landowners
  • Mr Jacques is set to appear in front of the Inquiry Committee this Friday, August 7
  • Rio's shares have dropped 1.46 per cent today to trade for $103.57

Rio Tinto (RIO) has made a detailed submission to the Australian Parliamentary Inquiry, admitting its regret for blasting the Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 rock shelters in WA.

In the submission, Rio details its relationship with the Traditional Landowners of the site, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP) from 2003 to 2020.

"The destruction of the Juukan rock shelters should not have occurred and I have unreservedly apologised to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people," CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques said.

In late May this year, the mining giant destroyed a 46,000 year-old Aboriginal heritage site which held extraordinarily archaeological significance to Australia.

Juukan Gorge cave site. Top - before mining in 2013. Bottom - just before destruction in May 2020.
Source: BBC

The explosion had been in the works since 2013 when Rio was given ministerial consent. One year later, an archaeological dig unearthed artefacts such as a 4000 year-old plait of human hair and evidence the site was much older than originally thought.

Due to the true archaeological significance not being realised until after the consent and the fact Rio was technically abiding by Western Australia's Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, the company was able to proceed with its plans.

Interestingly, Rio claimed it believed it had the consent of the PKKP people.

Unfortunately and unfairly, the Act has no statutory requirement for Traditional Landowners of the relevant site to be consulted which means the traditional owners of the land weren't involved in the decision-making process.

Since the devastating event, the Western Australia Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 is under a review.

Rio destroyed the site as part its expansion plans to expand its Brockman 4 iron ore mine.

The real tragedy in this situation is that the ASX 20 mining giant had four options to expand its iron ore mine - three of which would not have damaged the Aboriginal heritage site. But simply put, Rio went with the option which allowed it to access the most high-grade iron ore.

"Various opportunities were missed to re-evaluate the mine plan in light of this material new information," Jean-Sébastien said.

"There are less than a handful of known Aboriginal sites in Australia that are as old as this one... its importance cannot be underestimated," PKKP representative John Ashburton said to Reuters.

Looking back on the tragedy, Rio said it drilled 382 blast holes and loaded them with explosives by May 13. Allegedly, this was one day before the PKKP people got wind of the upcoming destruction.

Once they were aware, the PKKP people urgently requested to preserve the site and stop the blasts five days before the explosion would take place.

An expert was engaged to see if the blast holes could be safely unloaded, however it wasn't considered "feasible."

"There was insufficient time to do so safely given the limitations on the stability of the explosives and the unacceptable environmental and safety risks," the submission stated.

Australian Minister for Indigenous Affairs Ken Wyatt said it was "incomprehensible" that the blast had gone ahead, but added that it appeared to be a "genuine mistake."

Currently, Rio Tinto assures its main priority is to strengthen its partnership with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people.

In June, Rio launched a board-led review of its heritage management processes. The review would be led by Rio Tinto's independent Non-Executive Director, Michael L'Estrange AO however, he is seeking input from Rio's employees and the PKKP people.

"The decision to conduct a board-led review of events at Juukan Gorge reflects our determination to learn lessons from what happened and to make any necessary improvements to our heritage processes and governance," Rio Tinto Chairman Simon Thompson said.

"Our immediate priority is to regain the trust of Traditional Owners, starting with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people," Jean-Sébastien said.

The final report of the review is being targeted for October this year.

Jean-Sébastien Jacques will face the Inquiry Committee this Friday, August 7.

Rio's shares have dropped 1.46 per cent today to trade for $103.57 each at 2:20 pm AEST.


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