Northern Minerals has been forced to suspend operations at its Browns Range rare earths pilot plant in the East Kimberley because of COVID-19. The company said today it had made the difficult decision to place the facility on care and maintenance because of travel restrictions and the serious threat the virus posed to remote Aboriginal communities in the surrounding area. “The health and safety of our people is our number one priority, and our commitment to play our part in protecting the Kimberley stands alongside that,” the George Bauk-led company said in a statement. Workers have begun demobilising from site while a small care and maintenance team would remain on an alternating four-week on, four off roster. Mr Bauk said the decision was not made lightly and he understood it would have a significant impact on the company’s employees. Northern Minerals said it had transported a further 27 tonnes of heavy rare earth carbonate to Darwin for export and sale, with all material produced now sold or ready to be sold. “The recent consignment crossed the WA/NT border before it closed on Tuesday,” the company said. “While site-based activities have been suspended, there are several value-enhancing projects that will continue.” Shares in Northern Minerals were off 0.1¢, or 4 per cent, to 2.3¢.