A historical marker commemorating Lisbon Valley’s uranium heritage is now installed, awaiting formal dedication by the entities that made the project a reality. The marker, on the Anticline Overlook road off U.S. 191, speaks to the history of the Mi Vida mine, the economic effects of uranium discovery on the region, as well as the long-term health issues miners suffered as a result.
Museum of Moab board member Lee Shenton said the marker is intended to recognize those who “met our country’s call for a reliable domestic supply of uranium.”
Although the $2,375 project was funded entirely by private donations, Shenton said it was endorsed and supported by the Grand County Historic Preservation Commission, the Museum of Moab, the San Juan County Commission, the Grand County Council, the Utah Department of Transportation and the Bureau of Land Management.
Speaking to the Grand County Council Oct. 18, Shenton said, “We really appreciate the endorsement of this group and the San Juan County Commission.”
Local artist Michael Ford Dunton was commissioned to frame the historical marker. He created a steel arch around the marker, complete with an atom design made from local stones to represent the uranium industry.
“I thought of the uranium history and an atom came to mind,” Dunton said. “Then, keeping it in the area using stones for the nucleus and the electrons. So [I’m] always trying to explore a sense of place.”
The marker’s language notes that Charlie Steen’s discovery of the ore deposit at the Mi Vida mine site sparked 500 other mines in the region “and an economic boom that enriched Southern Utah.”
The marker was initially suggested by Tom Zoellner, author of “Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World,” Shenton said.
Zoellner spoke to that change-making history, saying that the uranium industry completely transformed the Colorado Plateau.
“Uranium put Moab on the map after World War II,” Zoellner said. “It was the center of the last mineral rush in the West, and the international symbol of this futuristic miracle rock that was supposed to safeguard world peace, create a source of endless electricity and permanently wean us off gasoline. These promises weren’t fulfilled but the investment and the excitement of that era fundamentally changed the Colorado Plateau.”
The marker also highlights the lasting effects of the atomic age, noting that Steen’s Atlas mill — which processed uranium in the region — is still being remediated by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), known as the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) project. The cleanup effort, currently projected to cost $1 billon, does not yet have a clear end date due to federal funding shortages.
Current DOE UMTRA Project Manager Don Metzler said it is “fitting” to commemorate the boom era of Lisbon Valley.
“I grew up hearing my father talk about the importance of the uranium mines in this area. With the Lisbon Valley being one of the most well-known uranium mining districts in the U.S., I think it’s only fitting that we commemorate those who worked in these industries that supported the country’s nuclear weapons and energy programs,” Metzler said. “This historical marker is a meaningful way to do that.”
Sarah Fields, executive director of Uranium Watch, currently monitors the uranium industry, which is still active in San Juan County at the White Mesa Mill, a processing mill for ore. Fields said that during its boom time the uranium industry brought financial benefits to the Moab community, but history should also reflect its impact to workers and the environment.
“Although the uranium industry brought financial and other benefits to the Moab community, it brought illness and death to workers and U.S. and foreign citizens who were exposed to uncontrolled and unacknowledged levels of radioactivity,” Fields said. “ ... The organizations that want to preserve the uranium legacy of Moab should also be honest about the nature of that legacy in southeastern Utah, the U.S., and globally.”
The marker alludes to that history, stating that “the long term effects of poor ventilation in some of the mines eventually proved deadly to many miners.”
A dedication ceremony for the marker is scheduled for Nov. 18, and Shenton said it will be important to invite former Atlas mill workers as well as San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Bennally.
“[Her] father succumbed to lung disease after working in uranium mines,” Shenton said.
Although Zoellner provided the impetus to create the historical marker, he said the “real monuments” to the uranium era can be found throughout the region.
“The roads the Atomic Energy Commission helped build in the red rock country are now the backbone of the jeep and mountain bike trail system. And thousands of workers became sick and died of various cancers because of the shoddy safety codes and the government’s poor understanding of radioactivity,” Zoellner said. “The trails and the ghost footprint of the Atlas Mill and the graves of the sickened miners — these are Moab’s real monuments to this era.”
Grand County Council chairwoman Elizabeth Tubbs said it is important to recognize that history, no matter how complicated.
“Good, bad or indifferent, whatever our history is, it’s important to remember and commemorate,” Tubbs said.
The Nov. 18 dedication ceremony for the Lisbon Valley Historical Marker will be open to the public. Shenton said the time will be announced closer to the date of the event.