Pat Dodson calls for mining royal commission after reports of damage at Aboriginal sites

Lorena Allam
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Pat Dodson, Yawuru man and Labor senator for Western Australia, has said it may be time to consider a royal commission into mining in the Pilbara following a series of reports of damage at Aboriginal sites, and potential breaches of agreements.

Senator Dodson’s comments came as Eastern Guruma traditional owners expressed their “upset and complete frustration” at Fortescue Metals Group , which went ahead with land clearing at a site of significance to them without involving elders who wanted to be present to salvage cultural material.

Fortescue’s CEO Elizabeth Gaines said the incident was an “administrative error” and works were halted on the site as soon as the error was identified.

Related: Fortescue Metals should be prosecuted over Pilbara breach, traditional owners say

Senator Dodson is a member of the federal parliamentary committee investigating Rio Tinto’s destruction of Juukan Gorge last April. The committee released its interim report, “Never Again”, in December.

It called for the Western Australian government to put a stop to the destruction of heritage sites until new laws are passed, and recommended a moratorium on all new section 18 approvals under the Aboriginal Heritage Act. It called for mining companies to introduce a voluntary moratorium on acting on existing approvals to destroy sites.

Dodson said the latest reports of damage and possible breaches of agreements are “absolutely” of concern to the committee.

“The destruction of the Juukan caves was an horrendous blow to the PKKP and to the nation. The country should really take stock of itself, not just the WA government,” he said.

“It’s almost a matter of a royal commission into what’s going on in the Pilbara. They’ve turned it into an industrial estate where the mining act obviously reigns supreme over everything else, and they don’t really care about the rights and interests of the traditional owners, and certainly their rights to their own cultural heritage matters.

“And it’s going to be a cause for Australia being brought into disrepute unless we take some serious action here.”

Following the outcry from traditional owners following Fortescue’s clearing of an area around Weelamurra Creek, the company’s chief executive, Elizabeth Gaines, said she had spoken to Wintawari Gurama Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC) chairman Glen Camille to “personally express my regret and sincere apology on behalf of Fortescue”.

“We have carried out a full investigation into the matter which has shown that this unfortunately occurred as a result of an administrative error and the results of the investigation have been shared with WGAC.

“We have paused all clearing works at this site as we work with WGAC on the matter.”

But the Wintawari Guruma claimed FMG had been “negligent and lazy” and is demanding that the WA department of planning, lands and heritage take action against the company for a potential breach of the Aboriginal heritage act.

A key condition of ministerial consent was that Fortescue would provide a written invitation for two representatives of the Eastern Guruma people to undertake cultural salvage prior to any disturbance works at Weelamurra Creek, and be present to monitor the ground disturbing works. While FMG had extended the invitation, the work went ahead without them present.

“It will not be a good outcome if the [department] again give them the benefit of the doubt because they have self-reported the offence,” WGAC boss Glen Camille wrote to the Aboriginal affairs minister, Ben Wyatt, on 15 February.

“FMG holds more tenure under the Mining Act 1978 than any other company in WA. Its compliance systems and processes should be sophisticated and sufficiently mature to ensure that such negligent, lazy breaches do not occur.

Related: Aboriginal rock shelter in Pilbara damaged after BHP promised not to disturb heritage sites

“This latest breach, while disappointing, comes as no surprise. We are used to FMG’s expedient approach to their regulatory approval process resulting in corners being cut and compromised outcomes that we are forced to live with.”

FMG’s approval to operate in the Weelamurra area was granted in December by Aboriginal affairs minister Ben Wyatt after months of discussions with elders and the WGAC about mitigation measures. News of what the WGAC described as “damage” at the Weelamurra creek site came just days after BHP announced a Banjima-registered site on its mining area had been subject to a “rockfall”.

The site, a culturally significant rock shelter, was reportedly damaged in late January. BHP and the Banjima have launched a join investigation into the incident.

Dodson said a royal commission would be the “only way major institutions can be put under the spotlight and proper analysis of their behaviours brought into sharp focus” as well as “the shortfalls in legislative frameworks to uphold the rights and interests of Aboriginal traditional owners and native title holders”.

The WA Aboriginal affairs minister, Ben Wyatt, said his department was investigating the Weelamurra creek incident.

“I have been advised by the Department of Planning Lands and Heritage that an alleged breach of the Aboriginal Heritage Act is currently under official investigation,” Wyatt said.

“The matter is being treated very seriously and with utmost priority by the Department. I trust that the investigation will be managed expeditiously and concluded swiftly.”