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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Trucks haul in and dump uranium tailings at the new operational Crescent Junction Disposal Site 30 miles north of Moab and a bulldozer spreads out the tailings in the disposal cell Monday. The tailings are from an old uranium mine.

MOAB — More than half a century ago, an unemployed geologist stumbled across the country's largest deposit of high-grade uranium in southeastern Utah.

The result of that discovery fueled a thriving industry for Moab at the time, but left a legacy of 16 million tons of uranium tailings that currently threaten the Colorado River.

Today is a celebratory landmark in the cleanup process at the former Atlas mill site, where 22 rail cars hauling 88 containers of the waste will head 30 miles north to Crescent Junction to a disposal site.

The site is 1700 feet longs, 1800 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. Trucks carrying the material dump it into the disposal site, where a front end loader make several passes to pack the bright red dirt, which is full of tailings.

Mark Walker, a spokesman for EnergySolutions, the contracted disposal company, said the tailings will be packed into 1 foot deep "lifts." The seven days a week operation uses 50,000 gallons of water a day for dust suppression as well as washing the containers of any potentially hazardous residue.

So far, only two and a half weeks worth of tailings is occupying the site, where work is carried out by between 14 and 17 employees a day.

"It's huge," said Donald Metzler, project manager with the Department of Energy. "There's been a lot of interest, a lot of pressure, to get this done."

To mark the beginning of this cleanup process is the fanfare, with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. on hand to signify its importance at an afternoon ribbon-cutting.

Shipments of the tailings actually started last month in a sort of testing process, but full operations are now under way to transport the waste to a secure disposal site.

It has taken decades of environmental review, litigation, finger-pointing and congressional intervention to get to this point.

"It is a long time coming," said Loren Morton, an environmental manager with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

Morton has spent the better part of the past 10 years entrenched in all that goes along with a project of this magnitude, with millions of dollars spent already and millions of dollars left to spend.

It was just this year that an $108 million infusion of federal stimulus funding was directed to accelerate cleanup of the 439-acre site on the west bank of the Colorado River.

About 130 acres of the site is covered with the uranium tailings pile, which at one point was destined to remain put — until flooding and worries about potential contamination of the river changed the government's mind.

Four years ago, Huntsman was joined by other governors from Western states in his firm call to the Department of Energy to move the tailings. Otherwise, the drinking water of more than 25 million people would be threatened.

Today, that call is being answered.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com