Rio Tinto says no damage to Aboriginal rock shelter structure from Aug. 6 blast

Yandicoogina, the Pilbara, Western Australia. Image from Rio Tinto.

Global miner Rio Tinto has found no damage to the structure of a rock shelter at an Aboriginal heritage site in Western Australia that was impacted by blasting at its Nammuldi iron ore operations, it said after a visit over the weekend.

Rio Tinto employees and representatives from the Muntulgura Guruma people visited the site last weekend, where a blast on Aug. 6 led to the fall of a Pilbara scrub tree and one square metre of rock from the overhang of a rock shelter estimated to have been inhabited over 40,000-50,000 years.

There has been much less outrage about this incident compared to three years ago, when Rio Tinto destroyed rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in the same region which had showed evidence of human habitation stretching back 46,000 years.

“Assessments found no structural damage to the rock shelter itself, and no damage to cultural materials,” Cecile Thaxter, Rio Tinto iron ore vice president said in a webcast on Monday.

“An internal review is underway, and we will learn from this incident, including modifying our practices if deemed appropriate,” she said.

Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation has been contacted for comment.

Rio Tinto, which did not make a public statement for seven weeks after the Aug. 6 incident, has said it was sorry, and that it had taken steps to inform appropriate parties and reformed its practices since Juukan. This was the first time in more than 1,800 blasts that it had detected such a disturbance, it said.

Rio’s destruction of rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in 2020 prompted a global outcry, the departure of top executives and a parliamentary enquiry that recommended an overhaul of Australia’s Aboriginal heritage protection laws.

Nevertheless, Western Australia is set to overturn its 2021 Aboriginal cultural heritage protection laws, introduced on July 1 after the destruction of the Juukan Gorge shelters. The law was repealed after just five weeks in force due to opposition from landowners.

The latest incident occurred amid fading support for a referendum on Oct. 14 that would recognize Indigenous people in Australia’s constitution and set up an Indigenous body to advise the government on issues that impact Aboriginal people.

(By Melanie Burton; Editing by Sonali Paul)


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