MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Rio Tinto Ltd knew the cultural and historical significance of two caves in Western Australia years before it blew them up last month as part of an iron ore mine expansion, traditional owners said on Friday.
However, Rio, which won state government approval to destroy the caves in 2013, has said it believed it had consent from the traditional owners of the caves, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP), because they had not explicitly asked that the site not be mined.
The world's biggest iron ore miner in late May destroyed the sacred Aboriginal caves in the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara that showed evidence of continual habitation dating back 46,000 years.
"Our elders are deeply distressed about this," Burchell Hayes, a director of the PKKP Corporation said to the ABC.
"For years, we have made mention how significant those sites were to the PKKP people. When we say that those sites are significant, we have an expectation that miners, in this case, Rio Tinto ... they don't go and disturb that place," he said.
Rio apologised and said it would urgently review its plans for other sites in the area.
The caves, for which Rio Tinto funded at least four excavations, revealed thousands of archaeological remnants subsequent to its 2013 approval to destroy the site, including a plaited belt of human hair, found to be more than 4,000 years old, with genetic links to present day traditional owners.
"We have obviously had some misunderstanding. We thought we had a shared understanding of the future of the caves, that were going to be mined as part of our normal mine sequence," Rio Tinto's chief of iron ore Chris Salisbury told the ABC.
Rio had previously said it was sorry that "the recently expressed" concerns of the PKKP not to mine the area had not arisen during many years of engagements.
"There is concern about the Juukan Gorge destruction as well a serious discontent about the way this crisis has been managed by Rio," said Brynn O'Brien, of activist investor the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility.
Australian legislation allows mining companies to apply for an exemption to destroy Aboriginal sites.
Of the 463 applications in the past decade, none have been rejected, Western Australia Environment Minister Stephen Dawson told parliament last month. Applications can be appealed by mining companies but not by traditional owners.
(Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)