Rio Tinto chairman to step down over caves blast scandal

Simon Thompson is the latest high-profile departure linked to the miner’s destruction of ancient rock shelters in Western Australia. (Image courtesy of Rio Tinto.)

Rio Tinto’s (ASX, LON, NYSE: RIO) chairman Simon Thompson became on Wednesday the latest high-profile executive to announce his departure amid backlash for the company’s destruction of two 46,000-year-old rock sacred shelters in Western Australia last year.

Thompson, a former geologist and investment banker, said he will not seek re-election as a director at the 2022 annual general meetings, as he was “ultimately accountable” for the blasting at Juukan Gorge to expand an iron ore mine.

He also regretted the fact that the destruction had “overshadowed” the company’s successes in 2020 – during which it paid a record dividend to investors as a result of booming iron ore prices.

Non-executive director Michael L’Estrange, who led the review into Rio’s handling of the incident, will retire in May. The company said he needed to reduce his workload after “significant surgery.”

L’Estrange’s internal examination of the caves disaster was later criticized by Australian politicians, including Senator Pat Dodson, who call it an “unsatisfactory piece of work” that was “full of mea culpas and corporate lingo.”

The review concluded in August that there was “no single root cause or error that directly resulted in the destruction of the rock shelters.”

But internal documents revealed in September that Rio Tinto had engaged a law firm before the blasting, in case the traditional owners applied for a court injunction to save the rock shelters.

Heads roll

In addition to Thompson and L’Estrange, former chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques is due to leave the company at the end of March. He has been replaced by Jakob Stausholm, who was chief financial officer.

Rio initially penalized Jacques by cutting his short-term bonuses, amounting to almost $5 million (£3.7m).

Last month, however, the company revealed that Jacques had finished 2020 with a substantial payout. Jacques received £13.3 million ($18.6 million) under Australian accounting rules, up from £7.1 million ($9.9 million) in 2019.

Two other senior executives, who were in charge of the iron ore division and the unit responsible for dealing with Indigenous communities, also received hefty remunerations. Both Chris Salisbury and Simone Niven left Rio last year.

The National Native Title Council (NNTC) welcomed the latest departures, adding that if Rio Tinto was serious about cultural change it would replace at least one of the outgoing executives or directors with at one Aboriginal person.

“They are signalling the right intent but the proof will be in the pudding, in the action that they deliver,” NNTC chief executive Jamie Lowe said in an emailed statement.

The Western Australian government has promised to update Indigenous heritage laws that allowed Rio Tinto to legally destroy the sacred sites.