The boss of a WA copper miner in hot water for failing to come clean about destroying Aboriginal artefact sites for five years has spoken up after confirming the failure to the ASX.
The boss of a WA copper miner in hot water for failing to come clean about destroying Aboriginal artefact sites for five years admits he was only made aware of the issue bubbling under the surface four months after starting his role.
Sandfire Resources on Thursday confirmed it had damaged two unregistered Aboriginal heritage sites in 2017 and 2018 and had failed to report the disturbance to authorities until this month.
The damage to the artefact scatter sites, which were known to Sandfire but were not on the Aboriginal heritage register, occurred at the miner’s now-mothballed DeGrussa copper mine north of Meekatharra, on Yugunga-Nya country.
Sandfire admitted a “series of process failures” while building the Monty satellite mine led to the error and that it had now launched an investigation and apologised to traditional owners.
That apology, Yugunga-Nya elder Andrew Gentle Senior told Business News, was yet to be forthcoming to him.
Sandfire chief executive Brendan Harris joined the miner from South32 in April this year, taking the reins from long-serving former boss Karl Simich who oversaw the saga.
Mr Harris said he was made aware of the issue in September, four months after starting the role.
“On the day I became aware of it, the board was made aware, the chair of our sustainability and risk committee was also notified on that day,” he said.
“We very much took actions there from those discussions, to move as quickly as we could to move from initial findings to a point where we had enough clarity and understanding that we felt we could inform the traditional owners of the disturbance that at that stage we felt potentially had occurred.
“We have met with the traditional owners, we're dealing regularly with their representative, as we speak, and have been for some time, and I have every intention of meeting with them at the right time.”
Mr Harris rejected assertions Sandfire failed to appoint anyone to manage heritage issues, instead suggesting there may have been an issue in having too many people accountable.
“We are working on a fundamental holistic approach across the organisation to put in place the systems and processes that we will need as a growing global company,” he said.
“We have to double and triple down on that.”
Mr Gentle said he had not checked in on the sites during the five-year period as he trusted Sandfire was “doing the right thing”.
“We never thought of it because we thought they were good people,” he said.
“(Finding out) was like someone murdered our mother.
“You can't do that to our things, it is an Aboriginal cultural thing.”
Mr Gentle said despite “trusting” Sandfire to protect the heritage sites, he had never been comfortable with the mine’s presence.
He said he wanted to see compensation from the miner for the destruction of heritage, and for the state government to take Sandfire to court.
Under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, anything that may reasonably be considered to be protected under the Act must be reported.
Disturbance of sites without a section 18 permit to do so can result in fines of up to $100,000.
That fine was increased to a maximum of $10 million under the botched new Aboriginal heritage protection laws, which were repealed days after being introduced in July this year.
An extension of time limits to prosecute damage to sites from 12 months to five years was also reverted when the new Act promised by Labor was scrapped.
A Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage spokesperson said the agency would liaise with Sandfire and traditional owners over the matter.
“The State Government takes matters involving Aboriginal Heritage very seriously,” they said.
“The laws require approval for activities that may impact or harm Aboriginal heritage.
“A person who excavates, destroys, damages or conceals or in any way alters any Aboriginal site commits an offence.”
Mr Harris said he was confident Sandfire had not broken ASX continuous disclosure laws and was not yet focused on potential compensation claims.
Yugunga-Nya Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, which overseas the neighbouring determination area, was contacted for comment.