MOAB, Utah — Before Moab was a Mecca for outdoor recreation in Utah, it was the hub of cold war uranium mining; and in the rush to process the ore for nuclear weapons, officials made a terrible decision we're still paying for.
That decision made in 1956 was to build a uranium processing mill along the banks of the most important river in the American Southwest: the Colorado River.
"When they established a mill, there wasn't very much thought given to protecting the river," said Russell McCallister, the director of the federal cleanup.
The Colorado provides water to tens of millions of people and millions of acres of crops downstream.
The process left behind waste products and tailings — that's a radioactive sand-like material — that was 80 feet thick by 1998, when the mill owner went bankrupt.
That left the federal government responsible for the toxic mess.
"So we're trying to protect basically the downstream constituents from this water flooding onto the tailings and moving it downstream," said McCallister.
The tailings are moved to a site far from waterways about a mile north of Interstate 70 near Crescent Junction. Workers are capping it with nine feet of native soil and rock.
"It's a perfect area for a disposal cell if you were to pick one in the United States. It's very arid out there. Very limited rain, very limited vegetation," said McCallister
For now, the mill site has groundwater wells to remove uranium, ammonia and other contaminants before they reach the river.
More than a decade of clean-up has cost $600 million, with work expected to continue into the 2030s. The final bill could be around a billion dollars.
And after it's declared safe, Moab gets to decide how to use the site.
This story was produced through a partnership with waterdesk.org, a project at the University of Colorado at Boulder to examine Western water issues. Mitch Tobin of waterdesk.org assisted in the research and production of this article.