Rio 'exaggerated' Juukan risks: inquiry
Traditional owners have accused Rio Tinto of exaggerating the safety risk involved in removing explosives from the ancient Juukan Gorge rock shelters.
But the mining giant insists attempting to extract the explosives was so risky it could have caused multiple worker deaths.
Rio's outgoing chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques and corporate relations chief Simone Niven on Friday fronted a parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of the 46,000-year-old site, along with former iron ore boss Chris Salisbury.
All three resigned from their roles last month.
In a supplementary submission to the inquiry, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people cast doubt on the blast advice received from Rio.
"By providing exaggerated advice to PKKP's expert in relation to the risks associated with removing (or) not detonating the charges, Rio Tinto misled PKKP and its blast expert as to the safety risk," they said.
PKKP only learned the rock shelters would be destroyed on May 15, two days prior to the scheduled blast.
Rio agreed to delay the blast by a week while advice was sought but the mining giant continued to load explosives into blast holes.
Mr Salisbury said the original loading was the "primary cause of damage" and stopping there would not have protected the Juukan caves.
He said Rio's heritage team had received information from operating personnel that led them to assume the blast holes had been fully loaded.
"That was due to poor communication," he said.
"They should have been informed that the blast had been partially loaded and more importantly, the loading should have ceased ... it's another mistake that occurred during that period."
Rio did manage to remove explosives from seven drill holes on the edge of the blast zone after learning they could impact potential heritage sites that were not subject to Section 18 approvals.
Mr Salisbury said there was a risk that removing the other explosives would have initiated an unplanned blast "which could create a multiple-fatality situation".
Rio had approval under WA's outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act to blow up the sacred site so it could extract $188 million worth of high-grade iron ore.
It failed to act on expert reports noting its outstanding archaeological significance and the PKKP's desire to protect the site, which Rio maintains was never relayed to its executives.
In evidence to the inquiry on Monday, PKKP culture and heritage manager Heather Builth said she had been told last year by a Rio mine operations manager that the caves would be protected.
Mr Salisbury said the manager had indicated he did not know where Dr Builth had been pointing and did not give a definitive answer.
When the manager contacted Rio's heritage team to follow up, they did not respond.
Ms Niven, Rio's executive responsible for Indigenous affairs, said her first personal contact with the PKKP was when she offered to set up a meeting after they filed their submission three weeks ago.
"I really regret not having the chance to meet with them over the years and during the recent events. I really should have and I'm sorry for that," she said.
Rio, which is reviewing participation agreements struck with Pilbara traditional owners, has said it is determined to prevent a repeat of the incident.
The two parties have agreed to a moratorium on mining in the Juukan Gorge area until at least January 2021.
Rio has also pledged not to enforce any potential gag orders against Indigenous groups.
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