Peter Milne September 22, 2023
Blasting for iron ore by miner Rio Tinto may have damaged a rock shelter of cultural importance to Pilbara traditional owners three years after the British-Australian company was damned for destroying Juukan Gorge.
A drone inspection on August 6 after a nearby blast earlier that day revealed a tree and a one-square-metre rock had been dislodged from the overhang of a rock shelter that is a registered cultural heritage site.
Iron ore mining in the Pilbara is the financial backbone of global miner Rio Tinto.
Aaron Rayner is chief operating officer of the Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC) which represents the Muntulgura Guruma people, the area’s traditional owners.
“WGAC is disappointed by the report but is yet to establish the extent of the impact to the rock shelter,” he said.
In May, the third anniversary of the destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters, Rio Tinto chairman Dominic Barton called it a “deep stain” on the mining giant’s history.
Since Juukan Gorge, Rio Tinto has introduced procedures to protect Indigenous cultural heritage, including placing vibration monitors near sites within 350 metres of a blast and taking photographs before and after a blast.
Rio Tinto iron ore chief executive Simon Trott said as soon the miner identified the rock fall at the Nammuldi mine site it paused work 150 metres away and notified the traditional owners.
“Initial assessments taken by drone haven’t found structural damage to the rock shelter or impacts to any cultural materials,” he said.
“We are working closely with the Muntulgura Guruma people to better understand what has happened and will be guided by them on the appropriate next steps.”
Those next steps will include visiting the shelter, 60 kilometres from the nearest town of Tom Price, with the traditional owners.
Trott said the miner, which shipped almost one billion dollars worth of Pilbara iron ore every week in 2022, had apologised to the traditional owners.
The destruction of Juukan Gorge was permitted under Western Australia’s controversial Aboriginal Heritage Act of 1972, although Rio Tinto has since admitted it was the wrong thing to do.
The Nammuldi rock shelter, in contrast, is protected, and it was Rio Tinto’s intent not to damage it.
The Juukan Gorge incident led to an international outcry and subsequently prompted substantial changes of senior management at the miner after months of sustained pressure from investors and the media.
Since then, the $164 billion company has embarked on a mission to rehabilitate its reputation, including releasing an internal report on sexual harassment, racism and bullying in the workplace, an issue that has plagued the entire mining sector in WA.
An independent audit of Rio’s global cultural heritage management found areas where the miner had leading practices but also identified areas where it needed to improve its performance.