Rio Tinto Chairman Simon Thompson is stepping down over the company’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old, sacred Indigenous site in Australia, becoming the latest in a string of departures connected to the event.
Thompson, who has chaired the company since 2018, has told Rio Tinto’s board that he will not seek re-election in 2022, according to the company.
“As Chairman, I am ultimately accountable for the failings that led to this tragic event,” Thompson said in a statement. “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.”
Thompson’s announcement comes nearly a year after Rio Tinto, the world’s second largest mining company, blew up the Juukan Gorge caves in Western Australia to expand an iron ore mine.
The local custodians of the land, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, had been fighting for years to protect the caves, and their destruction was met with outrage. The caves had significant archeological value and deep cultural meaning for Aboriginal people.
Rio Tinto apologized for the demolition in June, and cut bonuses for its former CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques and two other senior executives. But it didn’t immediately fire any executives, leading to heavy criticism.
Months later and under pressure from investors, Jacques was forced to resign. He was replaced by Chief Financial Officer Jakob Stausholm at the start of the year. (Rio Tinto recently revealed, though, that Jacques still received some $18.6 million in pay and long-term incentive rewards in 2020, despite his resignation.)
Two other executives — Chris Salisbury, head of the iron ore business, and Simone Niven, group executive for corporate relations — also left the company in the wake of the incident.
Thompson said in his statement Wednesday that the company has engaged with investors, the government and Indigenous communities to learn from the demolition of the caves.
It has also taken action to “address the weakness” in its risk management and governance, including appointing Stausholm, who Thompson said “has moved swiftly to appoint his new executive team and has identified his key priorities to rebuild the trust that we have lost.”
The board said it has accepted Thompson’s decision and will search for a successor.
Shares in Rio Tinto rose 1.8% in Sydney on Wednesday.