Traditional Owners dispute external probe of Sandfire’s damage to Aboriginal heritage: NIT

David Prestipino

Traditional Owners have criticised an external probe of Sandfire’s destruction of Aboriginal heritage at its DeGrussa mine site.
(Image: Department of Mines and Petreoleum).

Yugunga-Nya Traditional Owners in Western Australia’s Mid-West region claim Sandfire Resources gagged them and destroyed Aboriginal heritage sites in the pursuit of a mine expansion.

Last Wednesday the Traditional Owners alleged a six-month independent report from external law firm Gilbert & Tobin lacked “context, balance, and supporting information to substantiate its key findings and recommendations … a perspective crucial for fully understanding the impact of Sandfire’s actions”.

The external investigation came after Sandfire notified the ASX in late December 2023 it had hired the firm to investigate “process failures” that led to the disturbance of Aboriginal heritage at its DeGrussa mine site, approximately 150km north of Meekatharra, and a decision not to inform Yugunga-Nya Traditional Owners about it.

Sandfire shared the “Investigation into Aboriginal Heritage Disturbance at the Monty Mine” report with Traditional Owners during a briefing in Meekatharra last Monday, before releasing it to the market on Tuesday.

After reviewing the report, Yugunga-Nya Elder Audrey Shar said its contents showed “Sandfire just didn’t care about Aboriginal heritage” and contained “several unsubstantiated findings that need to be corrected”.

Elders dispute the report’s claim a lack of systems within Sandfire to ensure disturbances of Aboriginal heritage sites did not occur in error was to blame for the disturbance.

They referenced Sandfire’s abolition of a Liaison Committee, established shortly after the pair’s Native Title agreement in November 2010, as evidence it was not concerned about Aboriginal cultural heritage at the mine site.

The purpose of the committee – comprising representatives from Sandfire and Yugunga-Nya – was to consult on heritage matters, a crucial element to their ongoing relationship.

But after conducting a survey in October 2016 and receiving the Heritage Report from the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation –  the legal representatives and heritage service providers for Yugunga-Nya at the time – Sandfire did not mention the Heritage Report, according to minutes of a February 2017 Liaison Committee meeting.

“Following that February 2017 Liaison Committee meeting, Sandfire closed down the committee and there were no more meetings,” Traditional Owners told National Indigenous Times.

“By doing this, Sandfire made sure there was no formal way for anyone to raise concerns about heritage issues, or to confirm whether the recommendations in the Heritage Report had been followed.”

The Gilbert & Tobin report did not address this issue.

In late 2017, a worker at the DeGrussa mine site contacted a Yugunga-Nya representative and separately to YMAC regarding concerns about Sandfire’s operations near the Aboriginal sites of cultural significance identified in the heritage report.

These concerns could not be addressed with Sandfire because the only mechanism in place to handle heritage matters – the Liaison Committee – had been abolished.

The Traditional Owners claimed the GT report failed to address this issue and dismissed vital evidence from a former Sandfire employee that contradicted its own findings.

“During the Gibert & Tobin investigation, a former Sandfire employee told Yugunga-Nya representative that the prevailing mentality among Sandfire management at the time (2017-2020) was to ‘get the expansion [of the mine site] done, and to hell with what stands in the way,” their statement said.

Yugunga-Nya also claimed the GT report failed to explain why certain heritage sites were protected and others ignored, and questioned why they were denied opportunity to participate in the investigation.

“After formally requesting the opportunity to participate in the investigation, Gilbert & Tobin did not interview any of the Yugunga-Nya Traditional Owners who participated in the 2016 heritage survey and, in some cases, those participants also worked at DeGrussa at the time,” they said.

“The Gilbert & Tobin investigation was limited to select current and former employees who were not compelled to give statements.

“The report raises more questions than answers, and no clear evidence has been presented to show that the destruction of Aboriginal heritage at DeGrussa was not intentional.”

Despite their frustration and disappointment, Yuyunga-Nya reiterated its commitment to working with Sandfire.

“Yugunga-Nya looks forward to collaborating with Sandfire’s current senior leadership team to establish the newly agreed-upon mechanisms for engaging in dialogue and trust-building, which address heritage matters,” they said.

A Sandfire spokesperson told National Indigenous Times that the company “acknowledges and appreciates the Yugunga-Nya’s willingness to work with us in collaboration so, together, we implement all the elements of our new framework agreement, including the critically important protection of cultural heritage in future”.      

“We reiterate our sincere appreciation and gratitude for the time the Yugunga-Nya has given to meet with us over the last few months and look forward to working with them as we commence closure activities at our DeGrussa operations,” they said.

The Yugunga-Nya Native Title lands cover approximately 21,305sqm in WA’s Mid-West region, inland from Carnarvon and Geraldton, south of Newman and north-northwest of Kalgoorlie.

Their lands include the towns of Meekatharra and Cue at the western edge, which is roughly defined by the Great Northern Highway. The eastern boundary of the claim area follows the Rabbit Proof Fence. The southern boundary is defined by a line running between a point south-west of Lake Austin to the Rabbit Proof Fence, while the northern boundary is marked by the northern extent of Ned’s Creek Station, and includes Sandfire Resources DeGrussa Mine.

Read the original article here on the NIT website