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Steven Rooney must have thought the gods had it in for him when he took over as general manager of one of the world’s largest zinc and lead mines early last year.

The pandemic lockdown began a month later. But rather than panic, Steven and the McArthur River Mine (MRM) management team set about ensuring two things: the safety of staff and local community members, and a safe and sustainable operation.

Both have been achieved – there has been no community or site transmission of covid-19 and the sustainable operation maintained.

Steven couldn’t be more impressed at how the 1200 staff at MRM and the 1000 people who live in the neighbouring community of Borroloola reacted to the pandemic.

“They have been great,” he says. “I can’t praise them enough.” MRM was proactive from the start, sending 30 staff from Borroloola home to work in their community even before the Territory Government closed all remote townships to outsiders.

“The last thing we wanted was for the virus to get into the community,” says Steven. “That would have been devastating. “We moved quickly to protect the most vulnerable, with our safety team putting in a great deal of work to make sure our response far exceeded industry best practice.”

The staff in the local community workforce included mechanics, carpenters, operators and supervisors. They didn’t sit around at home – they worked with local community organisations and the Territory Government to carry out a swag of useful jobs, including mowing, fixing fences and repairing damaged roads.

“They did a normal day’s work,” says Steven. “They were very noticeable – and felt very proud – going about their work for their own community.

“The community was impressed and grateful for what they did. The feedback has been so positive that we want to make the community work a regular part of our operation.”

Since the community workforce returned to site in September, there has been an increase in interest from the local community in working at the mine, largely due to the great work completed by the local team during the pandemic.

This has resulted in about 30 people from Borroloola and surrounding areas attending recent Indigenous Employment Program open days on site.

“More people than ever now realise that we’re not some distant mining giant, but a deeply-embedded part of the community.”

During the lockdown many other fly-in fly-out workers at the mine couldn’t go home.

“They were away from their families for a long time but reacted brilliantly. People made big sacrifices. “We changed the way we did things, and everyone had to adapt quickly to new rules.”

“And it worked. As far as our production levels are concerned, you could hardly tell that there was a pandemic.” Steven praises suppliers who managed to get vital supplies to the mine no matter what and describes them as “a big part of our extended mine family”.

“I’m very proud of the way everyone has pulled together to get us through this tough time.”

While difficult, Steven enjoyed the challenges thrown up by 2020.

He continued to focus on his four priority areas:

• To increase local recruitment throughout the Territory

• To increase local procurement by building relationships with more Territory suppliers – MRM spends about $500 million a year on goods and services each year, much of it in the NT, so it was not surprising that a recent procurement information night for Territory suppliers organised by Industry Capability Network NT was packed

• To increase diversity by giving more opportunities to women and Indigenous Territorians

• To increase community engagement to demonstrate that MRM is “a big part of Territory life”.

MRM has a “only Territorians” component in its recruitment strategy. “We’re proud to recruit Territorians,” says Steven. “They say that if you’ve lived in the Territory for five years, you’ll never leave so it makes sense for us to train people who are going to stay.” MRM’s first three-year mine engineering cadetship for Territorians is proving to be a big success.

Nine recruits – ranging in age from early twenties to late thirties and including a former truck driver, HR officer and aviation mechanic – will work at the mine and gain an associate degree in mine engineering, helping to ease a chronic worldwide shortage in the profession.

“At the end of the cadetship, they will have a globally recognised qualification and three-years’ experience working in a world class mine,” says Steven.

MRM will take on a further 10 mine engineering recruits this year. They are expecting a lot of interest – there were over 130 applications for the first intake. MRM is pleased that its employment diversity is working.

In 2020, the mine enjoyed great success at the NT Women in Resources Awards with two of their own taking home awards. Geotechnical engineer Carrie Heaven was named the Territory’s overall Exceptional Woman in Resources and mechanical engineer Emma Williams won the Young Exceptional Woman in Resources award.

“Our success at the awards reflects our commitment to supporting women in the resources sector. “We work hard to make sure there is diversity at every table – not to meet targets or tick boxes but to have that diversity of thought in every conversation.”

Steven says MRM will continue to be a major contributor to the Territory economy, made possible with the mine’s mining management plan being approved by the Territory Government late last year.

“That gives us certainty,” he says. “We can play a big part in helping the Territory rebound from the pandemic. “There is a great deal of challenges that come with working in such a remote location but with that comes great opportunity, not just for us, but for the local community and Territory as a whole.”