Rio Tinto PLC (LON:RIO) has asked a non-executive director to lead a review of its “heritage management processes” after the mining giant destroyed a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site in Australia.
Pressure has grown for changes to Australia's mining laws after the FTSE 100 company blew up two sites at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region as part of efforts to expand its Brockman mine.
The caves in the gorge have been a sacred site used by the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people and their ancestors since the last ice age.
Rio Tinto received permission by the Western Australian government to destroy or damage the site in 2013.
Michael L’Estrange, a director at the company since 2014 and a former Australian high commissioner to the UK, will speak to staff and the PKKP people, with further engagement with indigenous leaders, ‘traditional owners’ of sacred tracts of land and subject matter experts.
“The review will focus on events at Juukan Gorge and appraise Rio Tinto's internal heritage standards, procedures, reporting and governance, and will examine the company's relationship and communications with the PKKP,” the company said in a statement on Friday, with a final report expected in October.
It comes after the Australian Financial Review reported that Rio Tinto iron ore chief executive Chris Salisbury said at staff meeting said the company “haven’t apologised for the event itself, per se, but apologised for the distress the event caused”.
The PKKP said the report “raises questions relating to the sincerity of Rio Tinto’s apologies, including those made publicly and privately by Mr Salisbury”.
Major shareholders have criticised the moves, with Aberdeen Standard International saying they are “deeply concerned” about the destruction of the site and Rio’s management of the matter.
Under current local laws, Rio’s rival BHP Billiton had been planning to expand its A$4.5bn South Flank iron-ore mine would result in the damage or destruction of at least 40 significant Aboriginal sites in the Pilbara region, even though the traditional owners, the Banjima people, have raised their opposition.
But BHP has since agreed not to damage the heritage sites without “further extensive consultation” with the traditional owners.