Rio Tinto chairman accepts accountability for Juukan Gorge destruction, to step down

Rio Tinto chairman accepts accountability for Juukan Gorge destruction, to step down

The chairman of Rio Tinto (ASX: RIO) Simon Thompson (pictured) will not seek re-election at the company's 2022 annual general meeting (AGM) after accepting accountability for the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters.

In addition, non-executive director Michael L'Estrange will retire from the board at the conclusion of the 2021 AGM, citing a significant surgery that has impacted his ability to work.

In a statement to the ASX, Thompson said the events at Juukan Gorge had overshadowed Rio's success during the COVID-19 pandemic period.

"I am proud of Rio Tinto's achievements in 2020, including our outstanding response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a second successive fatality-free year, significant progress with our climate change strategy, and strong shareholder returns," Thompson said.

"However, these successes were overshadowed by the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters at the Brockman 4 operations in Australia and, as chairman, I am ultimately accountable for the failings that led to this tragic event."

Further, Thompson said the company has been working toward identifying weaknesses Rio has with regard to preservation of Indigenous heritage sites.

Nonetheless, he said the event at Juukan Gorge, which saw Rio destroy two 46,000-year-old caves in the Pilbara region against the wishes of the traditional owners, was a source of "deep regret".

"Throughout my seven years on the Rio Tinto board, I have endeavoured to promote a progressive environmental, social and governance agenda," the outgoing chair said.

"While I am pleased with the progress we have made in many areas, the tragic events at Juukan Gorge are a source of personal sadness and deep regret, as well as being a clear breach of our values as a company."

Rio senior independent directors Sam Laidlaw and Simon McKeon will jointly lead the search for Thompson's successor as chair.

L'Estrange's retirement follows a "significant surgery" in February, with the board member deciding to reduce his workload.

"It has been an honour to have had the opportunity to serve on the Rio Tinto board for what will be six and a half years," said L'Estrange.

"I wish the new executive well for the future as they build on Rio Tinto's many strengths and continue to implement the critical changes aimed at ensuring that an occurrence such as the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters never happens again."

Shares in RIO are up 1.41 per cent to $128.71 per share at 11.26am AEDT. This time last year they were trading at just over $90 each.

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