Fortescue Faces State Probe Into Alleged Heritage Law Breach

Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. is being investigated by the Western Australian government over an alleged breach of heritage protection laws, becoming the latest iron ore giant to come under scrutiny for its management of ancient Aboriginal sites.

The Perth-based company has apologized to traditional owners of the land for what it said was an “administrative error” in undertaking clearance work within the boundary of a heritage site without their presence. Under the conditions of Fortescue’s consent for works at the site, the company was required to have two representatives from the Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation in attendance.

“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,” WA’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Ben Wyatt said in an emailed statement. “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.”

The management of heritage sites by mining giants in the state’s Pilbara iron ore region came under the spotlight last year after blasts by Rio Tinto Group damaged ancient rock shelters at Juukan Gorge. Western Australia is considering reforms to its heritage protection laws in the wake of the incident, while investors have called on the miners to strengthen their engagement with traditional landowners.

“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,” Elizabeth Gaines, Fortescue CEO, said in a statement. “We have paused all clearing works at this site as we work with WGAC on the matter.”

Earlier this week, BHP Group said it had identified a rock fall at a registered Aboriginal heritage site at one of its mining areas in the Pilbara on Jan. 29. The cause of the rock fall was under investigation, BHP said, adding that the site was not part of current mining operations.

The fallout from the Juukan Gorge incident led to the departure of former Rio Chief Executive Officer Jean-Sebastien Jacques and other senior executives.

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