Rio Tinto CEO resigns over destruction of Aboriginal site

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Rio Tinto blasted caves in Western Australia's remote Pilbara region, destroying one of the earliest known sites occupied by Australia's indigenous people. (File photo: AFP)

Rio Tinto's CEO and two other top officers resigned Friday after an uproar over the mining giant's destruction of an ancient Aboriginal heritage site to expand an iron ore mine in Australia.

Following a board investigation into the May 24 incident, Rio Tinto chairman Simon Thompson said CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques was stepping down "by mutual agreement" along with the chief of the company's core Iron Ore division, Chris Salisbury, and corporate relations head Simone Niven.

The Anglo-Australian firm blasted 46,000-year-old caves in the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia's remote Pilbara region on May 24, destroying one of the earliest known sites occupied by Australia's indigenous people.

"What happened at Juukan was wrong and we are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation," Thompson said in a statement.

"We have listened to our stakeholders' concerns that a lack of individual accountability undermines the Group's ability to rebuild that trust and to move forward to implement the changes identified in the Board Review," he said.

Jacques will remain in his role until a successor can be found or until March 31, whichever is sooner, and the other two executives will leave the company on December 31, he said. 

The three executives had already been forced to forfeit millions of dollars in performance bonuses amid shareholder anger over the destruction of the Aboriginal heritage site. 

The board-led review found Rio Tinto had obtained legal authority to blast the sites but doing so "fell short of the standards and internal guidance that Rio Tinto sets for itself".

Rio Tinto initially defended its blasting in the Juukan Gorge as authorised under a 2013 agreement with the state government.

But protests by Aboriginal leaders, who said they had not been informed of the planned blasting until it was too late to prevent it, led the company to issue an apology.

The cultural importance of Juukan Gorge was confirmed by an archaeological dig carried out at one of the caves -- known as rock shelters -- a year after Rio Tinto obtained approval to blast in the area.

The dig uncovered the oldest known example of bone tools in Australia -- a sharpened kangaroo bone dating back 28,000 years -- and a plaited-hair belt that DNA testing linked to indigenous people still living in the area.

Western Australia's state government is currently reviewing the laws governing mining operations near indigenous heritage sites.