The Rio Tinto boss has resigned after the mining giant blew up the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, with two other top-level executives also falling on their swords.
Jean-Sebastien Jacques will stay on as chief executive until a successor is found or until March 2021, whichever comes first, the company said on Friday.
His resignation comes after months of mounting pressure and a board-led review of the destruction of Aboriginal sacred sites for a mine expansion.
Other high-level executives who will also leave Rio Tinto are iron ore chief executive Chris Salisbury and the company’s corporate relations boss, Simone Niven. Both will leave on December 31.
The departures come as the company has been under increasing pressure after revealing it could have mined the Juukan Gorge without destroying Indigenous rock shelters pre-dating the last Ice Age.
Traditional landowners were never told the company had alternatives to the blast, which destroyed the 46,000-year-old rock shelters in June.
Mr Jacques told a parliamentary inquiry a month ago that the company developed four different options to expand its Brockman 4 iron ore mine in Western Australia back in 2012-13.
Under three of those proposed plans, the rock shelters on lands traditionally owned by the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP) would have been avoided.
But the company ultimately went with a fourth option that destroyed the shelters so it could extract an additional 8 million tons of iron ore.
On Friday, Rio Tinto chairman Simon Thompson said what happened at Jukkan was wrong.
“We are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation,” he said.
“We are also determined to regain the trust of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people and other traditional owners.”
Mr Thompson acknowledged a lack of individual accountability had undermined the company’s ability to rebuild trust and move forward.
Environment and shareholder activist groups were quick to welcome the resignations.
James Fitzgerald from the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility said the removals were just the first step.
“Investors have stepped up in this instance and demonstrated they will not accept corporate misinformation and the absolute disrespect to cultural sites that has become Rio’s modus operandi,” he said.
“This is just the first step on a long path towards restoring Rio Tinto’s good practice and reputation in its relationships with Indigenous people.”
The traditional owners of the ancient cultural sites, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, have wanted a more prominent public platform to present their views on the disaster since it took place in May.
They are calling on federal politicians investigating the blast to visit the site and see the full impact of the destruction.
In 2018, Rio received an expert report that assigned the caves the highest archaeological significance in Australia.
A Rio board review released in August determined no single root cause or error was behind the incident.
Until Friday, the three executives held on to their jobs but had their bonuses cut.
Industry super funds said the company’s response did not go far enough.
Rio has committed to helping establish a “keeping place” on PKKP country for artefacts and other items salvaged from the rock shelters, some of which are being stored in a shipping container.