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BHP knew of heritage site concerns over mine expansion

South Flank iron ore project in the Pilbara region, Western Australia. (Image courtesy of Fluor)

Mining giant BHP (ASX, LON, NYSE: BHP) acknowledged on Thursday it was aware of Australian Aboriginal groups’ worries about the future of dozens of heritage sites before it sought and obtained approval to destroy them, as part of a $3.4 billion expansion of its South Flank iron ore project.

The company, the second major miner to appear at a federal parliamentary inquiry investigating Rio Tinto’s (ASX, LON, NYSE: RIO) destruction of two 46,000-year-old sacred shelters, obtained approval from the Western Australia government on May 29, executives said. That was just five days after Rio destroyed the Juukan Gorge caves.

BHP sought permission to work on Aboriginal cultural sites despite being told of the damage it would cause, an Australian parliamentary inquiry heard

The world’s largest miner told the inquiry that representatives of the Banjima traditional owners “raised concerns in the field” ahead of the Section 18 application last October.

BHP also said the landowners wrote to WA authorities in April, saying they were opposed to the disruption of archaeological sites.

Section 18 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act legalizes the destruction of Aboriginal sites as traditional owners are not able to object to ministerial decisions made under the legal clause. The state’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Ben Wyatt, has since launched a review of the legislation.

In June, following the global backlash over Rio’s caves destruction that cost the CEO his job, BHP announced it would put plans affecting 40 sites on hold.

The miner said last week it would set up a heritage committee with senior Banjima elders to improve consultation and communication around heritage sites.

BHP has also clarified that Aboriginal owners are free to comment on the management of their cultural heritage, and is reviewing clauses around consent in its agreements.

10 of 40 Aboriginal sites “safe”

The company is currently reviewing all 57 of the permissions it has been granted to destroy heritage sites in the Pilbara. BHP said on Thursday it had already found a way to save at least ten of the sites it has permission to disturb.

BHP also vowed not to act on any of the permissions it has “without further extensive consultation with traditional owners.”

“We cannot get this wrong and we are committed to doing anything we can to achieve that,” BHP’s  head of Indigenous engagement, Libby Ferrari, told the senate inquiry.

The South Flank project is expected to create 2,500 construction jobs, more than 600 operational roles and generate opportunities for Western Australian suppliers. The mine is slated to produce iron ore for more than 25 years.