Questions about rockshelter vandalism have been left unanswered by Rio Tinto after a series of allegations were levelled against the miner about its conduct at its Marandoo operation.

Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation made a submission to the Juukan Gorge inquiry on Friday, alleging that Rio Tinto (then Hamersley Iron) signed off on the dumping of heritage material at the Darwin rubbish tip and kept it from Eastern Guruma Traditional Owners for nearly 30 years.

The corporation also highlighted an incident in 1992 which saw a culturally significant site in Manganese Gorge allegedly vandalised by heavy machinery.

In February 1992, Rio Tinto was granted a Section 18 consent to impact cultural heritage sites in the Marandoo tenement with four conditions attached. One of these conditions was to complete a heritage salvage and management program.

At least 28 sites of an estimated more than 400 were salvaged in the weeks after and material from one of the rockshelter sites in Manganese Gorge, MG2, was analysed and found to date back 18,000 years. This proved Traditional Owners had occupied the Hamersley Ranges through the last ice age.

After Rio Tinto was advised by their contractor that the findings were significant and warranted further salvage work, a hole was reportedly drilled through the roof of the MG2 rockshelter, compromising further research.

On September 2, 1992 the Green Left Weekly (now Green Left) reported the site had been “vandalised by heavy equipment” just before further salvage work was due to take place.

“In the past six weeks a drilling rig has put a hole through the ground above the cave, which went through the roof to the floor, damaging deposits and evidence of occupation that has yet to be properly excavated,” the report says.

The publication also reported the front of the cave had been vandalised and that a railway sleeper had been “wedged into a crack in the ground above the cave”.

“The damage is on such a scale that it could only have been done with heavy machinery.”

When asked whether Rio Tinto had any involvement in the incident, instructed any of its employees to drill into the cultural site, or if Rio Tinto equipment was used to vandalise the site, a spokesperson for the miner said Rio Tinto was unable to provide further comment at this stage beyond Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Simon Trott’s statement issued last Friday.

Upon news breaking of Rio Tinto allegedly dumping heritage material and vandalising the MG2 cultural heritage site, Trott said Rio Tinto is “not proud” of many parts of its history.

“We know we have a lot of work ahead to right some of these historical wrongs which fell well short of the standards we expect today,” he said.

“This will take time, consistent effort and open dialogue with the WGAC to rebuild trust and reset our relationship for the future. Our leadership team are engaging regularly on this important work and are committed to meeting with the WGAC again when they are ready.”

Trott also said the miner supports the repeal of the Aboriginal Heritage (Marandoo) Act 1992 (WA) which allows Rio Tinto to mine freely on Eastern Guruma Country and is still in force today.

By Hannah Cross