Fortescue rethinking expansion that endangers Australian sacred site

Autonomous truck at the Solomon Hub, Western Australia. (Image courtesy of Fortescue Metals Group.)

Australian iron ore major Fortescue Metals Group (ASX: FMG) said on Friday it would re-evaluate an expansion plan at one of its iron ore mines in the Pilbara region, after an Indigenous group said the project threatened sacred sites, including a 60,000-year-old rock shelter.

Fortescue’s decision comes after fellow miner Rio Tinto (ASX, LON, NYSE: RIO), the world’s number one iron ore producer, blew up in May a 46,000-year-old sacred indigenous site in Western Australia.

While the company has apologized, chief executive officer Jean-Sebastien Jacques revealed on Friday it had other options, but rejected them.

The planned Queens mine expansion, part of the Solomon project, has a footprint covering more than 70 heritage sites

Rio’s boss acknowledged that the move allowed the company to access about 8 million tons of high-value iron ore. The world’s second-largest miner recorded about $4.6 billion in profits from its iron ore unit in the first half of the year.

In light of the global uproar Rio’s blasting caused, Fortescue has asked the government to delay a decision on a heritage exemption request, which is part of a mine expansion plan. The project would threaten sites of cultural significance to the Wintawari Guruma people.

The planned Queens mine expansion, part of the Solomon project, has a footprint covering more than 70 heritage sites, including rock shelters, campsites and rock paintings and engravings. 

Testing of stone tools and other artifacts, found more than a metre below the surface at the site, showed the first two rock shelters’ use and occupation by humans dated back 47,800 years ago in one, and approximately 60,000 years in the second, The Sydney Morning Herald reported in June.

CEO Elizabeth Gaines said in a call with analysts that the company’s primary objective was to avoid cultural heritage damage. She added that Fortescue had consulted with local indigenous groups before designing the mine plan in question.

“As a result of this constructive consultation, we expect to achieve avoidance of significant cultural heritage beyond the current two-year mine plan,” Gaines said.

Fortescue says it has protected almost 6,000 Aboriginal cultural heritage places across its operations.

Solar ambitions

The company is also gearing up to test whether it can run its Pilbara-based Christmas Creek iron ore mine on solar, alone, during the day 

Alinta Energy, the miner’s partner in the project, says it is confident the goal can be achieved.

The solar farm is part of a major project that will extend the Alinta transmission line that runs from the Newman gas generator to Roy Hill mine by another 65 kilometres to Christmas Creek and Cloudbreak.

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