Rio Tinto hopes to set Cape York standards

·3-min read

Having endured the whip of ridicule over its Juukan Gorge disaster, Rio Tinto hopes other miners will uphold the environmental protection standards it has established in northern Australia's largest unspoilt wilderness.

The miner signed a cultural heritage agreement with traditional owners in May after blowing up a 46,000-year-old rock shelter at the Juukan site, 1500 km north of Perth, and triggering widespread backlash in 2020.

It had legal permission to destroy the sacred cave under Western Australia's outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act but conceded it breached the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples' trust in doing so.

In the wake of the blunder, Chief executive Jakob Stausholm said Rio was "working to drive cultural change at every level of the business".

Presumably having remained true to his word, the company says it now hopes new miners coming into Queensland's Cape York Peninsula will follow its lead in the region as it steps up decarbonisation plans.

The Anglo-Australian giant produced 27.8 million tonnes and shipped 19.7 million tonnes of bauxite worth $1.2 billion in the first six of months of 2022, according to first-half results.

Most of it came from three mines near Weipa, where it has operated since 1958.

Rio was the only miner in the region for decades until Metro Mining's Bauxite Hills Mine started up in 2018.

Anglo-Swiss commodities giant Glencore along with Japan's Mitsubishi Corp has been seeking approval for the proposed Aurukun Bauxite Project near to Rio's Amrun Mine, south of Weipa.

However the project has been delayed due to Environmental Impact Statement issues.

Rio Weipa general manager Shona Markham says she hopes rivals like Glencore will pursue the environmental and social benchmarks set by her company.

"Others, if they come into the region - (Glencore) are not the only ones mining up here, we also have Metro Mining north of the Wenlock River - I would hope they're mining to similar standards," she told AAP.

She also hopes rivals ensure they're working with Indigenous groups and investing in local communities.

Rio has three agreements with 11 Native Title holder groups in the Western Cape and a large proportion of its workforce is Indigenous or female.

"We're 28 per cent Indigenous employment and nearly 30 per cent female," Ms Markham said.

"It's one of the highest percentages in any industry across Australia and certainly leads in Rio Tinto, so we're proud of it.

"Apart from the direct investment in the towns, the employment value for our traditional owners is quite high through our business and, once again, that's something we're proud of.

"We would expect others to be working to similar standards."

The general manager's comments come as Rio moves to cut carbon emissions at Weipa.

It has contracted EDL to build a four megawatt solar farm and 4MW battery to complement its existing 1.6MW farm.

The project comes as the Queensland government considers new regulations on mining emissions.

Rising diesel prices have increased costs for miners but Ms Markham says the Weipa renewable energy project was planned before prices rose.

"We believe the economics of these renewable projects are right, as well as clearly they're the right thing to do for Australia and for the world," she said.

The federal Labor government pledged to rachet up a safeguard mechanism to curb big emissions polluters during the May election campaign.

Ms Markham says bauxite mining is only a small part of Rio Tinto's emissions but the company is looking at ways to operate an entire mine on renewable energy.

This AAP article was made possible by support from the Meta Australian News Fund and The Walkley Foundation.

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