Lawyers for mining company Rio Tinto warned traditional owners trying desperately to save the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters that they could not speak publicly about the issue, an inquiry has heard.
They were also told they could not apply for a federal emergency halt to works without first asking Rio Tinto‘s permission and giving 30 days’ notice, according to Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Carol Meredith.
The caves were destroyed in May on the traditional Pilbara lands of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, as part of Rio’s bid to access $135 million worth of iron ore.
Speaking via teleconference, Ms Meredith said Rio was applying pressure to the group as they tried to stop the works.
“What we were reminded of by Rio’s lawyers was that we were not able to engage seeking out an emergency declaration that perhaps would have stopped proceedings, because of our claim-wide participation agreement,” she said.
“We were hamstrung and we were reminded that we were not to speak about this publicly, that we had the gag clauses and we needed to remain compliant.
“If we were to proceed to seeking an emergency declaration. we were required to seek permission from Rio before we took that option, and we had to give 30 days’ notice and table every document we were going to use in that application.
“So for us in the time span available, it was not in fact an option.”
Financial payments left at risk, PKKP says
Northern Territory MP Warren Snowden asked Ms Meredith what the PKKP people would have lost if they breached the agreement.
She replied that they would have lost out financially.
“We are in danger in fact of losing all the benefits that come with the agreement … which is a very serious outcome from our people,” she said.
“It wasn’t an equal partnership then and it certainly isn’t now.”
The PKKP people have made little media comment since the blast.
In the context of discussion about the gag clause, Northern Territory MP Warren Snowden asked if the PKKP people would be able to speak to a media organisation if one approached it after the hearing.
Several PKKP members responded by saying “no”.
Later, PKKP Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Carol Meredith added the organisation did not want the examination of the blast to turn “into a media circus”.
“We are not anti-mining,” she said.
Rio Tinto accused of packing explosives despite concerns
The hearing also heard evidence from the PKKP people’s cultural and heritage manger, Heather Bluith, that even after the they had protested about the imminent destruction of the caves, Rio kept loading explosives.
“We were having all these high-level meetings [and] at the same time they were having these discussions, they were still loading up the blast holes,” she said.
In a statement a Rio Tinto spokesman said the company “reiterate” that what happened at Juukan Gorge was “wrong.”
“We are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation,” he said.
Fears for artefacts taken from caves
Concerns were also raised about the safety of significant ancient artefacts collected during archaeological surveys at the site.
The PKKP’s group’s cultural and heritage manager, Heather Bluith, said many artefacts were held by Rio Tinto in shipping containers at the Brockman mine site, with others on display in the administration building.
She said the traditional owners did not have access to the artefacts without permission from Rio Tinto.
“They have been out in a sea container going from 7 degrees [Celsius] to 60C on a daily routine, and we are really worried about their condition,” she said.
Rio Tinto said some artefacts were stored in a secure air conditioned room at a company building in Dampier, and a new storage facility would be installed on site that could be used to house them.
A Rio spokesperson said the firm was working with the PKKP on how they would like the artefacts stored.
FMG applies for nearby mining lease
The inquiry also heard the PKKP people were “pretty upset” Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group recently applied for a mining licence.
Ms Meredith said the PKKP had worked with Rio Tinto after the Juukan Gorge destruction to secure a temporary moratorium for six months on any further work in areas of high cultural sensitivity.
But in the past three days, she said traditional owners had become aware FMG had a prospecting licence in the moratorium area and was now seeking a mining licence.
“We agreed on a moratorium area and we weren’t told by anyone that there was potential for FMG to come in from the side and actually apply for a mining licence,” she said.
FMG issued a statement saying it had held prospecting licences since 2012 over an area 10 kilometres away from Juukan Gorge.
“As the Prospecting Licenses are reaching the end of their term, Fortescue submitted a Mining Lease application over this area which is consistent with normal practice,” the company said in a statement.
“Fortescue has commenced discussions with the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation regarding conducting extensive heritage surveys of the area and confirms that there are no current plans to mine the area.
“We take our relationship with traditional custodians very seriously and we will continue to work with the PKKP to survey the area and understand areas of cultural significance.”
Push to let committee visit WA
PKKP traditional owner John Ashburton became emotional as he appealed for exemptions so the inquiry’s hearings could happen in person.
“We think a physical site [visit] is necessary of the committee to appreciate the extent of the disaster,” he said.
“And to fully respect the trauma and the pain being experienced by PKKP people.”
Both the PKKP and committee chairman, Queensland MP Warren Entsch, have written to WA Premier Mark McGowan calling for the inquiry to be given permission to visit the Pilbara.
Mr McGowan said applications for travel exemptions amid the state’s hard border were managed by the WA Police Commissioner.
He also said the border rules were in place to protect Aboriginal communities from COVID-19, because they were particularly susceptible to the virus.
“All I’d say to Mr Entsch and other members of the committee is [to] continue to work with the State Government on the exemption process, but we’re not going to compromise the health of Aboriginal people for something they might want,” he said.