Australian copper miner Sandfire says damaged Aboriginal cultural heritage

By Melanie Burton

MELBOURNE (Reuters) -Global miner Sandfire said on Thursday it had damaged Aboriginal cultural heritage at a copper mine in Western Australia, and that it had informed the traditional owners and the state's heritage regulator.

Damage to an artefact scatter at the operations occurred in 2017 and 2018 due to a series of process failures during the mine's construction, Sandfire said in a statement to the Australian stock exchange on Thursday.

"Sandfire prides itself on being a values based organisation and we are extremely sorry to have disturbed artefact scatter within the Monty mining lease during construction and mining activities," Chief Executive Brendan Harris said.

"Our local communities are of critical importance to us and we will work hard to rebuild our relationship with the Traditional Owners."

Sandfire is winding down its DeGrussa copper operations, 900 kilometres (559 miles) north east of Perth, but produces copper in Spain and is developing projects in Botswana and the U.S. state of Montana.

Its statement comes as investors and automakers are increasingly scrutinising human rights and heritage protection in their assessments of Australian mines, even as Western Australia overturned Aboriginal cultural heritage protection laws earlier this year due to opposition from landowners.

Sandfire waited a year to tell the Yugunga-Nya people about the destruction of their sites, the Yugunga-Nya Native Title Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC said in a statement.

"We want the government to bring Sandfire to court for destroying our heritage," Elder Andrew Gentle said. "Their actions show they have no respect for Aboriginal people or Aboriginal heritage."

"Other miners may now consider doing the same thing as Sandfire... This cannot be allowed to happen in the 21st century," he added.

The group said it was yet to receive a response from Sandfire, despite requesting to meet its board over the incident.

The state heritage regulator said it had recently received Sandfire's notification regarding possible impact to Aboriginal heritage and that it would liaise with the company and representatives of the Yugunga-Nya community.

"The State Government takes matters involving Aboriginal Heritage very seriously," it said in a comment to Reuters.

Sandfire did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment about the statements by the heritage regulator and the RNTBC.

(Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Miral Fahmy)