For Grand County residents who lobbied Washington for years to remove tons of tainted tailings from the banks of the Colorado River, it was a long haul.

But it paid off and now the long hauls have begun.

On Monday, onlookers watched with a mixture of delight and disbelief as a specially built crane lifted a container filled with uranium-processing waste -- the first official shipment of thousands planned for the 30-mile trip from just outside Moab to a permanent disposal site just north of Interstate 70 near Crescent Junction.

Many on hand said the heavy lifting really began almost a decade ago, when community leaders began prodding federal leaders to move the 16-million-ton pile, roughly eight times the rubble left from the World Trade Center collapse.

At Monday's ribbon-cutting, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said the community "went nuclear" through the years, practically haranguing any one in a position to do something about the massive pile.

"That's what it takes to get the wheels of government to move on their own," he said. "It takes people, it takes people who care, who are passionate about their communities to get things going."

Representatives of Utah's three congressional offices attended Monday's ceremony, as did officials of the U.S. Energy Department, the Utah Legislature, the Department of Environmental Quality and the contractors, EnergySolutions Inc., S&K Aerospace and Union Pacific Railroad. So did U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano, a Democrat who represents a Southern California district whose residents are among the 30 million people who rely on Colorado River water.

"I never thought I would see the day," said former Grand County Council member Joette Langianese, one of a series of county lawmakers who dogged politicians to deal with the pile.

Local leaders had to convince Washington that the bankrupt Atlas Corp. would not be able to take care of the tailings, which threatened to slide into the Colorado River along with the toxic chemicals and hazardous heavy metals they contain. They had to persuade the Energy Department to assume responsibility for the 439-acre site.

Then they had to make the case for moving the pile, that it wouldn't remain in place during a large flood even if capped by large rocks. And, as recently as last summer, they had to prove that reviving an old rail spur on the mesa top would be a safer and cheaper way to move the pile to new digs: a 25-foot deep, 40-acre landfill at Crescent Junction.

"As a community," Langianese said, "we just did not want 'no' to be the answer."

A local steering committee even succeeded in getting cottonwood trees to screen the site and requiring brick-red heavy equipment to better blend with the area's famous red rock.

And now the $1 billion project, which got an added $108 million infusion through the recent stimulus package, will bring more jobs to the area.

"What a perfect time for our community," Langianese said.

Grand County Council member Pat Holyoak noted that the pile has been an eyesore at the gateway to Moab, across the highway from the entrance to Arches National Park. Her husband worked at the uranium mill from the year it opened in 1956 to the time it shut down in 1984. Dust would blow off the pile and into the community. And people worried about the pile sloughing into the river.

"It's a big day," she said.

"Yes, it's a big day," agreed Holyoak's daughter, Kammy Wells, director of the Moab Area Chamber of Commerce. "It's been a part of my whole life. And I'm not sad to see it go."

The Energy Department has projected the cleanup will take until 2028. But Michael Moore, the agency's acting director of environmental management, said Monday the timeline probably will be shorter, closer to the 2019 completion date set by Congress. The deciding factor, he said, is money.

"We're hoping it will be before 2022," he said.

Napolitano, now head of the House Water and Power subcommittee, told the group she began working on the problem soon after being elected 12 years ago, when a local water manager explained the importance of the Colorado River to her own community.

"It took a concerted effort of a lot of people," she said, noting that it was a "hard sell" in the beginning. "It really was a haul."

As Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a letter read to the crowd by a representative: "The finish line is visible from here."