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Rio rival BHP to face Juukan blast inquiry

Mining giant BHP is set to face a parliamentary inquiry investigating the destruction of ancient heritage sites in Western Australia by its rival Rio Tinto.

BHP, which like Rio has major iron ore operations in the Pilbara region, will on Thursday front federal parliament’s Northern Australia Committee.

Rio chief Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two other executives last week resigned following an investor revolt over the destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters.

Environment and shareholder activist groups welcomed the resignations, as did committee chair and Liberal MP Warren Entsch who said new leadership within the company was essential to preventing a repeat of the saga.

The committee will seek to meet with the outgoing executives to discuss Rio’s previous evidence to the inquiry and explore the implications of the company changes.

Mr Entsch says the committee is also eager to hear from BHP.

“The committee is aware of reports that BHP has put on hold plans to destroy sites sacred to the Banjima people in the Pilbara,” Mr Entsch said on Wednesday.

“Tomorrow’s hearing will give us an opportunity to explore how BHP is approaching the issue in the aftermath of Juukan Gorge.”

The committee will also hear evidence on Thursday from the Kimberley Land Council, which has criticised gag orders for Indigenous groups stemming from native title negotiations.

WA’s Chamber of Minerals and Energy, which represents and advocates for mining companies, is expected to give evidence on state and federal heritage laws.

The traditional owners of the Juukan Gorge sites, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, have sought a more prominent public platform to present their views on the disaster since it took place in May.

They are calling on federal politicians investigating the blast to visit the site and see the full impact of the destruction.

WA’s coronavirus travel restrictions have so far prevented that from happening.

Rio had approval for the Juukan blast but did not tell traditional owners the company had examined multiple options for expanding its mine that did not involve damaging the rock shelters.

In 2018, the company received an expert report that assigned the caves the highest archaeological significance in Australia.

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