Appearing at the Juukan Gorge inquiry on Friday, disgraced mining giant Rio Tinto told the Senate Committee it has “no internal records” of the disposal of Marandoo heritage material in 1997, despite a letter from the same year indicating otherwise.
NIT revealed in June that Rio Tinto, then Hamersley Iron, accidentally then deliberately disposed of Eastern Guruma cultural heritage material at the Darwin tip from at least 14 sites on the miner’s Marandoo tenement.
Contractor Kinhill Engineers had originally sent material to Northern Territory University (now Charles Darwin University) for further analysis, with the first accidental disposal occurring in 1995 and the second deliberate disposal occurring in 1997.
Appearing at the inquiry on Friday, Rio Tinto chief executive Australia, Kellie Parker, told the Senate Committee the miner has no internal records of the disposal.
“We don’t hold any internal records concerning an accidental disposal of artefacts by Northern Territory University in 1995,” she said.
Appearing alongside Parker, chief advisor Indigenous Affairs, Brad Welsh, also told the inquiry Rio Tinto has no evidence the miner directed any disposals.
“We have not identified any evidence that Rio Tinto directed any disposal of artefacts,” he said.
But a letter from Rio Tinto to Kinhill’s project manager, seen by NIT, tells a different story.
After correspondence between the then Aboriginal Affairs Department (AAD) and Kinhill, Rio Tinto wrote to Kinhill to “accept [its] proposal … for the processing and returning of materials and documentation to the Pilbara”.
In Kinhill’s original proposal to the AAD, it suggested that “other unsorted excavated materials from the ‘minor’ sites probably should be discarded in Darwin”.
While correspondence between Rio Tinto, Kinhill and the AAD suggests Rio Tinto’s involvement in the second disposal of heritage material in 1997, neither Welsh nor Parker offered any evidence to the inquiry proving the miner did not have any involvement in the dumping of the material.
Welsh did concede, however, that the management of the material was inadequate.
“We do recognise that decisions made on the management of these materials may not have adequately considered archaeological and cultural values in the analysis completed, and that in today’s processes such analysis and decision-making would be completed with Traditional Owners,” he said.
Welsh also said the miner has “not been able to identify any evidence that there was a deliberate decision to withhold any disposal information from the Eastern Guruma people”.
A spokesperson for Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation, which represents Eastern Guruma Traditional Owners, told NIT Traditional Owners were “disappointed with the continued lack of transparency” from Rio Tinto.
“They didn’t answer many of the questions put by the committee, and their answers regarding Marandoo were misleading,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said WGAC agrees with Senator Dean Smith’s comments at the inquiry that Rio Tinto should be subject to a judicial inquiry.
“Why should Rio not face a judicial inquiry over this matter in the same way the Crown Casino has been facing a judicial inquiry? Because in the eyes of many, it has lost its social licence to operate,” the Senator said.
The inquiry is set to hand down its report in October.
By Hannah Cross