Kiwi miners enjoy Philippines experience

Dressed in traditional costume alongside members of the Twali tribe to participate in an official blessing at OceanaGold’s Didipio gold and copper mine in the Philippines, was a unique experience for several Kiwi staff, says process manager, Mike McGrory.

“The process plant was blessed to ward off bad spirits. It was quite an extended ritual with a traditional Baki Ceremony and dance, and certainly something different to be part of.”

The Didipio Mine was officially opened on May 15th at a ceremony attended by around 500 guests and dignitaries.

Around the same time, the company’s Board of Directors announced the declaration of commercial production at the mine from 1 April 2013, just over three months following production of its first copper/gold concentrate.  Commissioning of the mine commenced on schedule at in the fourth quarter of 2012.

Managing Director and CEO Mick Wilkes says Didipio’s commencement was a proud moment for the company, which had built and developed the mine itself under the leadership of project director Martyn Creaney.

“Having someone with Martin’s caliber on the team helped us to attract more good people to the project. We also had the full support of the local communities and government, which was critical to its success.”

The Didipio Mine will add around 30 to 40 percent of annual gold production to OceanaGold’s balance sheet, says Wilkes.

Figures released at the end of July show Didipio has produced 20,553 ounces of gold and 9,373 tonnes of copper in the first half of the year.

Wilkes says production continues to ramp up and the company is confident of meeting a total of 2.5Mt through-put for 2013, rising to 3.0Mt by 2014 and 3.5Mt by 2015.

“We expect solid production of around 50,000 to 70,000 ounces of gold this year, with negative cash costs due to by-product credits from the copper produced at the mine.”

This lower cost environment is good news for the company that has been reviewing its New Zealand operations at Macraes and Reefton in light of the lower gold price.

Mike McGrory leads a staff of 66 in the processing team at Didipio that includes another three ex-pats – all South Islanders.

He has been in the Philippines full time since early March 2012, and before that made six trips to the mine site from OceanaGold’s Dunedin office.

He says one of the biggest, but most rewarding challenges has been the recruitment and training of the mine’s largely inexperienced local workforce.

“Almost half the workers had never worked in mining before. However they are all so keen and hard-working, and have picked things up well. They are definitely ahead of where you’d expect people from a small community with no industrial experience to be.”

The staff is provided with a variety of training opportunities, with several already being sent to New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia to attend conferences and training seminars.

Another challenge has been the regulatory regime in the Philippines which is one of the more complicated regimes McGrory has encountered.

OceanaGold is the first foreign company to operate in the Philippines under the Financial or Technical Assistance Agreement.

“It keeps us a lot busier than we’d like at times, however we work closely with the government and our local communities to ensure that we operate the mine in a safe and sustainable manner as per our strong operational history in New Zealand”

The mine is an alcohol-free zone, but that doesn’t stop the staff having a “good time and a good laugh” when socialising, says McGrory.

“We have a lot of social nights and play a lot of basketball, with 10 or 11 teams involved in a competition on the camp site.”

When he is not working, McGrory often travels down to Manila where he makes the most of the “warm water and some top scuba diving”.

“It’s also easy to get to places like Thailand and Vietnam, where I recently took one of my daughters for a holiday.”

Process superintendent Ged O’Connor has a very different lifestyle to McGrory.

Since July last year, he has commuted between Didipio and Nelson, where he lives with wife Michelle and children Kelsey 15, and Alex 14.

“My roster is four weeks on and two weeks off, which includes four days travelling time. I’m not home a lot and definitely miss the family. But when I’m there it is quality time.”

Once he leaves the comfort of home, O’Connor returns to a single room, with bathroom facilities in an accommodation facility just five minutes from the mine site and close to Didipio.

“The town is probably similar to Reefton in terms of size, but the number of people there is significantly greater. It’s one of the first things that hit you about the Philippines. On the ten hour journey by road from Manila there are people everywhere. It’s quite a contrast after leaving Wakefield where there’s hardly anyone around.”

O’Connor was a production superviser at OceanaGold’s Reefton mine before taking up the position at Didipio.

He is enjoying the opportunity to help progress local people into higher positions and decision-making roles.

“We have to encourage all levels of employees to communicate their ideas and to recognise that as far as we’re concerned, any idea is a good one.”

Despite the long distance commute, O’Connor says he is enjoying the job.

“As long as the opportunity exists, I’m keen to carry on here.”

With OceanaGold holding a number of exploration tenements in the Philippines outside the Didipio mining permit there could be more opportunities for Kiwis in the region.

“Now that Didipio has reached commercial production we are also starting to examine opportunities outside the Philippines,” says Mick Wilkes. “Within the next five years we can see OceanaGold operating three or four mines in different countries, completing our transition into a true multi-national gold producer.”