Pilbara rock shelter survives Rio blast

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A relieved Rio Tinto has told its staff that a culturally important rock shelter feared damaged by blasting for iron ore in WA’s north is intact.

A drone inspection on August 6 after a nearby blast earlier that day at the Nammuldi mine in the Pilbara revealed a tree and a one-square-metre rock had been dislodged from the overhang of a rock shelter that is a registered cultural heritage site.

Rio Tinto’s key iron ore division in Perth will be relieved they do not have another Jukaan Gorge diaster on their hands.Credit: Will Willitts

Rio Tinto iron ore chief executive Simon Trott said in a message to employees on Monday that the inside of the rock shelter was intact.

“Yesterday, representatives of the Muntulgura Guruma people and Rio Tinto visited the site together,” Trott said.

“They found no structural damage to the rock shelter or cultural materials.”

The site 60 kilometres from the nearest town of Tom Price is in the traditional lands of the Muntulgura Guruma people.

Trott said Rio Tinto remained committed to working with traditional owners to protect cultural heritage near its operations.

The news came in time to reassure investors who are touring the Pilbara iron ore operations that are the foundation of the British-Australian company.

Rio Tinto vice president for the environment and communities Cecile Thaxter told the visitors an internal review of the incident was underway and any lesson learned would be used in the future.

“This incident represents the first time we have detected a disturbance of this nature from the 1800-plus controlled blasts undertaken in the past three years,” she said.

It was a revolt by major investors for many months after the May 2020 destruction of a 46,000-year-old sacred site at Juukan Gorge that finally led to the resignations of Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques and the head of the iron ore division Chris Salisbury.

Since Juukan Gorge, Rio Tinto has introduced procedures to protect Indigenous cultural heritage, including placing vibration monitors near sites within 350 metres of a blast and taking photographs before and after a blast.

An independent audit of Rio’s global cultural heritage management released in March found areas where the miner had leading practices but also identified areas where it needed to improve its performance.

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