A parliamentary committee investigating Rio Tinto’s destruction of ancient cultural sites has abandoned plans to hold hearings on the land of the traditional owners because of Western Australia’s coronavirus travel restrictions.
Members of the Northern Australia committee had intended to meet on the land of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people this month.
It’s understood the hearings will no longer go ahead. The decision could be revisited in the unlikely scenario WA’s restrictions, which limit arrivals and require those entering to quarantine for 14 days, are eased later this year.
No dates have been locked in for future hearings, which are likely to be held via teleconference.
Members of the committee, chaired by coalition MP Warren Entsch, are investigating what led to one the world’s largest mining companies destroying the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters earlier this year.
Rio had approval for the blast but subsequent evidence indicated traditional owners were not told the company had examined multiple options for expanding its Brockman 4 site which did not involve damaging the rock shelters.
The PKKP are yet to finalise their submission to the inquiry.
Rio on Friday released more documents to the committee, including minutes of two meetings held in the days leading up to the blast.
The minutes of the first meeting show Rio’s iron ore chief executive Chris Salisbury sought information about the risk of an injunction against the blast.
He was told by legal counsel Nic Tole that the company had engaged legal firm Ashursts and “preparations were underway”.
The PKKP advised it planned to issue a press release, according to the minutes. Rio responded that their participation agreement included a “non-disparagement clause”, and a reactive statement from the company would be prepared if required.
Senior staff at the meeting were also concerned about Rio being legally exposed if the blast impacted new potential sites which were not covered by the Section 18 approval.
The company has released an email from former Rio executive Greg Lilleyman saying he had no knowledge of former CEO Sam Walsh instructing that Juukan Gorge should not be mined.
Mr Walsh made the claim to the Australian Financial Review, adding that Mr Lilleyman had backed his version of events.
Rio chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques last week flew to WA’s Pilbara region in the hopes of meeting with PKKP representatives.
The talks were expected to focus on potential remedies for the Juukan blast as well as finding an appropriate permanent home for items removed from the rock shelters, some of which are being stored in a shipping container.
Rio has committed to working with traditional owners to establish a “keeping place” on PKKP country for the artefacts and other salvaged items.
A board review determined there was “no single root cause or error” behind the incident, which has led to significant investor backlash.
Mr Jacques, Mr Salisbury and corporate relations executive Simone Niven kept their jobs but had their bonuses cut.