Mining giant Rio Tinto's destruction of ancient West Australian heritage sites is just the latest example of a common practice, a Senate inquiry has been told.
Rio sparked international outrage in May when it blew up the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters on Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) country in the Pilbara region.
The company had secured consent under WA's Aboriginal Heritage Act but has since apologised to the traditional owners, admitting it had overlooked new information that came to light about the sites' cultural significance.
Chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques will on Friday front a Senate inquiry which is examining the destruction.
In a submission to the inquiry, the Australian Archaeological Association (AAA) said WA's heritage legislation had been "reduced to facilitating development approvals" rather than protecting sites.
"The destruction of the Juukan Gorge rockshelters is devastating to Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people but sadly comes as no surprise to heritage professionals in WA," the submission said.
"Many more recent Aboriginal sites than those at Juukan Gorge are routinely destroyed with inadequate or no further investigation.
"It is important to recognise here that antiquity is far from the only significance value for heritage places."
Aboriginal people have no right of appeal under the existing Section 18 approvals process.
The AAA submission said sites were rarely investigated from an archaeological perspective early on in the development process, leaving little time for their significance to be assessed before development approvals were granted.
"Much like environmental protection legislation, recognising heritage as an asset for investment rather than a constraint to development is the foundation of improved protections for Indigenous heritage," the industry body said.
The WA government is developing new heritage laws which the government says will afford Aboriginal people and land users the same rights of appeal.
It will also "provide an avenue for contingency arrangements" where new information about heritage sites arises, according to a WA government submission to the inquiry.
Rio has conceded the Juukan Gorge destruction should never have occurred.
Its submission outlines the steps the company took prior to the blast, including signing an agreement with the PKKP people in 2011 to proceed with mining operations and securing approval from the WA government in 2013.
But it also concedes it overlooked new information that came to light after a 2013 ethnographic survey and three excavations of the shelters the following year.
Some 7000 artefacts were discovered including grinding stones, a bone sharpened into a tool and 4000-year-old braided hair.
Australian Associated Press