Rio Tinto chief apologizes for blasting ancient caves as Australia starts inquiry

FILE PHOTO: Jean-Sebastien Jacques, CEO of Rio Tinto Group, pictured in London, Britain, February 26, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File Photo

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Rio Tinto Chief Executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques on Friday apologized for distress caused by Rio’s destruction last month of two ancient and sacred Aboriginal caves in Western Australia, pledging full cooperation with an Australian government inquiry.

“We are very sorry for the distress we have caused the PKKP in relation to Juukan Gorge and our first priority remains rebuilding trust with the PKKP,” Jacques said in a statement, referring to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people.

The apology marked Jacques’ first public comments on the event since it occurred more than two weeks ago. Head of iron ore Chris Salisbury had previously expressed the miner’s remorse, although stopped short of saying Rio had done anything wrong in an interview with Australia media.

With state government approval, the world’s biggest iron ore miner destroyed two caves at Juukan Gorge that had previously contained evidence of continual human habitation stretching back 46,000 years as part of its Brockman mine expansion in the iron-rich Pilbara region.

Australia’s Senate agreed on Thursday to begin a national inquiry into how the destruction of a cultural and historically significant site occurred. Under terms of the inquiry the joint standing committee on Northern Australia must report back by Sept. 30.

“Rio Tinto will fully cooperate with the inquiry,” Jacques said his statement.

The miner said it would also continue to support reforms to Western Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act, under which permission to disturb the sites was granted in a process that denies traditional owners right of appeal.

“Rio Tinto has a long history of working in partnership and creating shared value with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities around our operations and across Australia more broadly. We remain absolutely committed to continuing to do so,” Jacques said.

Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell

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