Rio Tinto faces fresh probe over ancient rock shelter blast

Ben Harvey
Fri, 22 September 2023

Credit: Supplied Rio Tinto

Rio Tinto has been plunged into a fresh Aboriginal heritage controversy after blasting at a Pilbara mine disturbed an ancient rock shelter.

Three years after the Juukan Gorge disaster, the mining giant is holding its breath as the extent of damage to the 40,000 to 50,000-year-old site near Tom Price is assessed.

The shelter was 150m from the blast zone and had been flagged by traditional owners, the Muntulgura Guruma people, as an important area.

Rio’s London-headquartered board was alerted when photographs of the area near the Nammuldi mine, 60km from Tom Price, revealed a tree near the lip of a rock shelter collapsed during last month’s detonation.

A large boulder was dislodged, and it rolled down the side of the entrance to the cave. It is not known how much damage has been caused inside the shelter.

The incident occurred on August 6, the day it emerged that the Cook Government was going to scrap the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act.

The native title interests of the Muntulgura Guruma cover 6500sqkm around Tom Price and Karijini National Park and are held by the Wintawari Guruma Corporation.

Corporation executive Aaron Rayner said families in the area were disappointed by the news but were hopeful the damage was minimal.

“WGAC is aware of the reported impacts to the rock shelter on Muntulgura Guruma country in the Hamersley Range,” Mr Rayner said.

Rio Tinto.
Rio Tinto

“WGAC is disappointed by the report but is yet to establish the extent of the impact on the rock shelter. We are working with Rio Tinto to better understand what has happened and will work to independently establish the facts in the coming weeks.”

Mr Rayner said the site was identified some years ago, but little survey work had been completed.

“It is evidence of occupation, and therefore, it is significant, and sites in the area date back 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. Rio had committed to protecting the place,” he said. “It is pretty hard to discern from the photographs exactly what has happened. It sounds like Rio’s blast mitigation measures have failed them.”

Pictures of the shelter taken before the explosion at Nammuldi suggest its lip was already starting to collapse, with several large rocks obscuring the entrance. The miner has stopped blasting at the mine while it waits for traditional owners to be ready for a physical site inspection.

Rio’s post-Juukan protocols dictate that any blasting within 350m of an area of heritage interest attracts special scrutiny. Detonations are banned within 70m of a site. The company aims to ensure vibrations at a registered landmark are no more violent than those from natural phenomena such as strong rainstorms.

Rio has conducted 1800 blasts under the new regime, and it is understood this is the first time there has been any impact on a heritage site.

Industry observers believe the damage would not have been noticed at mines run by other companies, but Rio’s heightened paranoia post-Juukan meant a more rigorous post-blast survey.

Rio Tinto iron ore chief executive Simon Trott said the fall “of a Pilbara scrub tree and a one square metre rock from the overhang of a rock shelter in an area adjacent to the Nammuldi mine site” had been reported to 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. We deeply respect the Muntulgura Guruma people and have apologised for this incident.”

There are 14,000 sites on Rio’s tenements, 3500 of which have been reassessed in the three years since the Juukan Gorge explosion in 2020, which destroyed two 46,000-year-old rock shelters and sparked international outrage.

“I am informed that in mid-August Rio Tinto advised the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage that they were liaising with traditional owners in regards to some potential activity on eastern Guruma country,” Aboriginal Affairs Minister Tony Buti said. “DPLH, as the relevant government agency, will continue to liaise with Rio Tinto on the status and progress.”

Opposition Leader Shane Love said the incident, which coincides with State Parliament debating amendments to the 1972 Act, “highlights the need for the Cook Labor Government to ensure the Aboriginal Heritage laws it is developing are robust and will protect Aboriginal heritage effectively”.