Rio Tinto slashes bonuses over 46,000-year-old cave blast disaster

Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two senior executives have been stripped of some of their bonuses after an internal investigation found they must bear some responsibility for the destruction of 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in Western Australia.

The mining giant on Monday released the findings of a review into the blasting of the culturally significant Juukan Gorge against the wishes of the area's traditional owners. The review pointed to systemic failures in the heritage management at the mine site next to the gorge that was being expanded.

Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sebastien JacquesCredit:Josh Robenstone

While determining no single root cause or error was behind the destruction of the two rock shelters, it pointed to a "series of decisions, actions and omissions" over an extended period, underpinned by flaws in the company's processes of data-sharing and engagement with the traditional owners – the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP).

Rio's remuneration committee found Mr Jacques as the chief executive, head of corporate relations Simone Niven who oversees community engagement and Rio iron ore division boss Chris Salisbury must bear responsibility for "acts of omission, rather than commission, in failing to implement a fit-for-purpose management system at the mine".

"They bear partial responsibility for the failings," the report said.

The three executives will not receive short-term incentive payments at the end of 2020. Mr Jacques will be stripped of payments worth close to $3 million, while Ms Niven and Mr Salisbury will lose and about $1 million each.

Mr Jacques will also lose another $1.8 million worth of long-term incentives.

Rio Tinto, Australia's second-largest miner, publicly apologised for its legally sanctioned destruction of the Aboriginal rock shelters at WA's Juukan Gorge on the Sunday before National Reconciliation Week. It is facing a federal Senate inquiry into the events and the adequacy of the country's heritage-protection laws, and a storm of condemnation from the investment community and wider public.

The company had legal approvals to blast the site in order to expand its Brockman 4 iron ore mine and maintains it believed it also had the consent of the PKKP until explosive charges were already laid and it was too late to call off the detonation.

In its submission to the federal inquiry, Rio acknowledged it could have made better decisions and been better partners with the PKKP in the years leading up to the blast. The company said it had missed multiple opportunities to better communicate with the traditional landowners or pause to rethink its mine expansion plan.

It also acknowledged that it missed opportunities to reconsider its mine plans after archaeological excavations in 2014 found the site to be of much greater archaeological significance than initially thought.

Under questioning during the inquiry, Ms Jacques said the PKKP were never told there were other less profitable mine development options available to the company that could have avoided the site. He said three other mine-expansion options under consideration would have avoided the rock shelters, but the company opted for a fourth option that affected the site to access $135 million worth of iron ore and did not inform the PKKP that other options were available.

The Juukan Gorge disaster has highlighted the power imbalance between the nation's mining giants and Indigenous communities and raises questions being explored by the inquiry about a need for greater legal protections for traditional owners to safeguard significant sites on their ancestral land.

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