Juukan inquiry chair calls on Rio Tinto to salvage what it can after visit to Pilbara site

Northern Australia committee chair Warren Entsch has called on Rio Tinto to salvage what it can of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters that were blasted by the company in May as part of the expansion of its Brockman 4 mine.

Earlier this week, Mr Entsch and three other committee members met with the traditional owners of the area, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, to discuss the destruction and visited the site for the first time since a parliamentary inquiry began in June.

Parts of the Juukan 1 rock shelter can be salvaged, according to Northern Australia Committee chair Warren Entsch.
Parts of the Juukan 1 rock shelter can be salvaged, according to Northern Australia Committee chair Warren Entsch.Credit:Warren Entsch

Mr Entsch said he was “devastated” to witness firsthand the destruction the shelters – which contained evidence of 46,000 years of human habitation – and hear from the PKKP people about the hurt the blast had caused them.

He said the Juukan 2 shelter had been completely destroyed, but the roof structure of Juukan 1 was still intact and there was a chance of some rehabilitation.


“I think as Australians we all should be devastated with what’s been done and we need to make sure it is rectified,” he said.

“They’re never going to recreate it, never recreate what it was, but there is certainly an opportunity to rectify.”

The blast has since claimed the jobs of Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sebastian Jacques and two of his deputies, but throughout the inquiry the executive team has been adamant they were not aware of the cultural and heritage significance of the shelters until after explosive charges had been laid.

Mr Entsch has been vocal in his scepticism of these claims and doubled down on his comments after witnessing the site.

“They did a full geological survey of all of these caves and shelters and later on had an excavation where they pulled up close to 7500 artefacts. This is not petty cash; the payment for these things wouldn’t have been authorised by the tea boy,” he said.

“I couldn’t believe it was done without the knowledge of the hierarchy as they claimed, no way in the world it could have been missed.”

Rio Tinto declined to provide any further comment, instead deferring to comments made by Mr Jacques and Indigenous Affairs adviser Brad Welsh to the inquiry on October 16.

Mr Welsh said Rio Tinto had agreed to cease mining activity around the shelter sites while they worked with the PKKP on a plan to protect the area.

“We have undertaken a workshop with PKKP. We’ve agreed to a number of immediate actions prior to the 2020 wet season,” he said.

“That plan is being developed and is due to be delivered to the PKKP imminently for independent review. As soon as we have the support of the PKKP, we will be implementing that.”

Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation chair John Ashburton welcomed the chance to meet with Mr Entsch’s committee and said the engagement was open, honest and frank.

“We believe the committee now has a far stronger appreciation of the extent of the disaster and what this special place means to the PKKP people,” he said.

Mr Entsch said he expected the committee to deliver an interim report by December.

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