The inquiry is being held following the destruction of two rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Rio Tinto blew up the shelters on 24 Mays as part of its open-cut iron ore mines. One of the shelters showed evidence of 46,000 years of continual occupation.
Consent to destroy the rock shelters was granted by the then WA Aboriginal affairs minister, Peter Collier, in 2013. Questions have now been raised over the validity of this consent, with the state potentially liable for a compensation claim from the traditional owners of Juukan Gorge, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people.
The area around Juukan Gorge is now subject to a moratorium. It was later discovered that Rio Tinto had considered four options for the design of its mine, three of which would have avoided damage to the site. Jean-Sébastien Jacques, Rio Tinto's chief executive, said that the decision to destroy the site was taken for economic reasons.
“The difference between option four and the other three options was 8m tonnes of high grade iron ore,” Jacques said. “The economic value was around $135m of net value at the time of the decision.”
Now, south of the PKKP county, the Yinhawangka Aboriginal Corporation (YAC) is trying to prevent the destruction of 124 heritage sites that are in the path of Rio Tinto’s Western Range deposit. Rio Tinto has already received approval to destroy 26 of those 124 sites.