Rio Tinto on Friday launched a board-led review into how the miner destroyed two ancient and sacred Aboriginal caves in Western Australia, stepping up its response to the blasts after weeks of public criticism and shareholder dismay.
With state government approval, the world’s biggest iron ore miner destroyed two caves at Juukan Gorge, one of which had contained evidence of continual human habitation stretching back 46,000 years, as part of a mine expansion.
In his first comments since the caves were destroyed in late May, Rio Tinto Chairman Simon Thompson apologized to present day traditional owners of the land and pledged to make public the review’s findings, due in October.
Rio’s initial response came from its head of iron ore, Chris Salisbury, who characterized the incident as the result of a communication error and apologized for the distress that it had caused land owners, but not for the caves’ destruction.
“The decision to conduct a board-led review of events at Juukan Gorge reflects our determination to learn lessons from what happened and to make any necessary improvements to our heritage processes and governance,” Thompson said on Friday.
Investors said Rio Tinto appeared to have initially underestimated the gravity of the destruction of the caves, which archaeologists said were of immense value due an unbroken link in human habitation since before the last ice age.
Investors noted Chief Executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques waited more than a fortnight to directly address the matter, while then BHP Chief Executive Andrew Mackenzie fronted investors within hours of the Samarco dam disaster in Brazil.
“We were disappointed that the company presented the incident as a misunderstanding rather than a grave error of judgement,” said a top-20 investor in the company’s London listing, who declined to be named because the issue is sensitive.
“We believe this will have serious ramifications for Rio’s future community support for its mining activities.”