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Rio to face heat in Juukan Gorge report

Rio Tinto is expected to be dragged over the coals in a federal parliamentary report into the mining giant’s destruction of the sacred Juukan Gorge caves.

The Northern Australia Committee will on Wednesday hand down its interim report into the blast, having considered more than 140 submissions and heard evidence from dozens of mining industry stakeholders and Indigenous groups.

Rio blew up the 46,000-year-old rock shelters in Western Australia’s Pilbara region in May to extract $188 million worth of high-grade iron ore.

The traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people, were left devastated and the incident sparked global outrage.

Rio had approval under WA’s outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act but has since apologised and conceded the blast should not have happened.

Expert reports had outlined the caves’ outstanding archaeological and cultural significance long before they were blown up.

Rio’s chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques, corporate relations chief Simone Niven and iron ore boss Chris Salisbury all resigned in September amid significant investor pressure.

The committee has been unsparing in its assessment of Rio’s conduct and the evidence given by their outgoing executives at two hearings.

Committee members met with PKKP representatives last month and visited the Juukan sites to assess the damage first-hand.

The inquiry has also placed scrutiny on other big miners.

It was revealed Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group withheld $1.9 million in royalties to a Pilbara indigenous group after traditional owners declined to sign land access deeds.

Other Aboriginal groups said they had been rushed into signing complex land use deals that left them with little ability to protect sites.

The mining industry has called for heritage legislation to be left to the states despite other stakeholders urging federal MPs to intervene.

WA’s new draft Aboriginal heritage bill has received a lukewarm reaction from Indigenous groups and heritage experts.

The bill will not go before parliament until after the March election.

Rio, which is reviewing participation agreements struck with Pilbara traditional owners, has said it is determined to prevent a repeat of the incident and pledged not to enforce any potential gag orders against Indigenous groups.

It has agreed to a moratorium on mining in the Juukan Gorge area until at least January 2021.

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