Rio Tinto condemned by shareholders for seeking legal advice before blowing up Juukan Gorge

Mining giant briefing lawyers three days before destroying the ancient rock shelters ‘beggars belief’

Juukan Gorge




The Australian mining giant Rio Tinto hired lawyers to prepare for a potential injunction three days before it destroyed Juukan Gorge.
Photograph: PKKP Aboriginal Corporation/AFP/Getty Images

Shareholder groups have heavily criticised Rio Tinto after revelations late last week that it hired lawyers to prepare for a potential injunction against the destruction of ancient rock shelters in Juukan Gorge, three days before they were destroyed in a mining blast.

Late on Friday Rio released dozens of documents, including minutes of meetings, in response to questions raised by a parliamentary inquiry.

At a meeting of senior managers on 21 May, the iron ore boss Chris Salisbury asked about the risk of an injunction, and Rio’s legal counsel, Nic Tole, “advised preparations were under way and external law firm Ashursts [a multinational corporate firm] is instructed”.

The minutes show Rio Tinto executives were more concerned about potential damage to Aboriginal heritage sites which they did not have permission to damage than the impact on the rock shelters at Juukan Gorge.

“N Tole [Rio Tinto’s legal counsel] confirmed that Rio Tinto is legally covered in respect of the Juukan rock shelters under the existing s18 consent,” the minutes say.

The Australian Centre for Corporate Responsibility said Rio Tinto’s behaviour “beggars belief”.

“After blasting Juukan Gorge in May, Rio Tinto assured investors and journalists that the company would be seen in a better light once all the facts emerged,” its legal counsel, James Fitzgerald, said. “Precisely the opposite is proving to be true.

“A yawning gap is growing between Rio Tinto’s portrayal of events on one hand, and the picture emerging from the evidence on the other.

“The upshot of Rio Tinto’s submissions and report is that the destruction of Juukan Gorge was all a tragic mistake for which everyone and no one is responsible. Yet the minutes of internal Rio Tinto meetings on 21 and 22 May, several days before the Juukan blast, reveal a different story.

“The minutes show deliberate efforts to lawyer up and defend the destruction that hadn’t yet occurred. There is no record of surprise, shock, regret or remorse by Rio executives.”

The meeting on 21 May was called after the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners asked Rio Tinto to delay the blasting and named the rock shelter as a significant heritage site. The PKKP intended to put out a press release, the meeting was told.

“Our position is that our participation agreement includes a non-disparagement clause,” the minutes say. “A reactive media statement will be prepared if required.”

In the documents provided to the Senate, Rio Tinto also admitted that many of the 7,000 items salvaged from the Juukan Gorge site were being stored in a non-airconditioned onsite shipping container.

Last week an anthropologist, Prof Glynn Cochrane, who spent 20 years implementing Rio Tinto’s social performance program, said he was “not sure [the artefacts] are being held somewhere safe”.

“It’s like blowing up the tomb of the unknown soldier and forgetting about the occupant,” he said.

Rio Tinto said the storage facility was a sea container and was not climate controlled.

“However, not all artefacts are stored there,” it said. “Organic material, such as animal bone and charcoal, is being stored in a secure airconditioned storage room at Rio Tinto’s Aboriginal training and liaison building in Dampier.”

A new storage facility had been installed onsite which could be used to house artefacts “if this accords with the wishes of the PKKP”.

“The traditional owners can access their material at any time by request,” it said. “The reason that a request must be made is because the facility is located on an active mine site.

“We can repatriate anything and everything salvaged from PKKP country at any time should a request be made by the PKKP.”

Rio Tinto’s global chief executive, Jean-Sébastien Jacques, is in Western Australia seeking a meeting with the PKKP.

Western Australia’s coronavirus travel restrictions have forced the parliamentary inquiry, led by the Liberal MP Warren Entsch, to abandon its plans to head to the Pilbara this week to hear from the PKKP and other traditional owner groups, and to view the damage at Juukan Gorge first hand.