Rio Tinto Chair Simon Thompson has announced he will step down within the next 12 months following the Juukan Gorge disaster of 2020.

The announcement came on Wednesday after Thompson told the Board he would seek re-election as Chair for the year 2021 but not 2022.

Accepting responsibility for his role in the destruction of and response to Juukan Gorge, Thompson said as Chair he is “ultimately accountable for the failings that led to this tragic event”.

“Throughout my seven years on the Rio Tinto Board, I have endeavoured to promote a progressive environmental, social and governance agenda,” he 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.”

The Rio Tinto executive in charge of the internal review into Juukan Gorge, Michael L’Estrange, also announced his resignation on Wednesday.

According to Rio Tinto’s annual report released last week, L’Estrange was paid an extra 46 per cent on top of his annual director fees for the inquiry – resulting in a sum totalling over $280,000.

The internal inquiry was launched after Rio Tinto wilfully destroyed Juukan Gorge and instructed their legal team in advance to prepare an injunction to prevent Traditional Owners from objecting to the destruction of priceless heritage sites.

L’Estrange and Thompson are the two latest exits in the ongoing Juukan Gorge saga, with former executives Jean-Sebastien Jacques, Chris Salisbury and Simone Niven stepping down six months ago.

Rio Tinto’s annual report also revealed Jacques will receive a 20 per cent pay rise for the year despite standing down in September and losing his long-term bonuses of almost $2 million. He took home $12.85 million last year and will remain on the miner’s pay roll until the end of March.

Salisbury and Niven, also stood down in September, forewent their 2020 bonuses but received eight months’ wages in lieu of their notice – sums of $718,000 and £307,000 respectively. Under UK employment law, Niven also received a £448,000 severance payment.

It’s understood both former executives will be eligible for payment of their long-term bonuses as per their previous contracts.

Rio Tinto’s recent financial results also revealed the mining giant raked in $12.4 billion in underlying profit and paid out a record $9 billion in dividends.

Miners in the Pilbara have again come under the microscope as BHP and FMG work with Traditional Owners to strengthen their relationships due to two separate incidents in January.

By Hannah Cross