Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Meramec Caverns Tours Halted amid Contamination Concerns

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Meramec Caverns Tours Halted amid Contamination Concerns

Article excerpt

STANTON * Visitors have flocked to Meramec Caverns since the 1930s when Lester Turilli's great-grandparents lived in a tent and charged 5 cents per tour of the caves. Now the popular Franklin County tourist destination has to turn visitors away while federal contractors work to reduce levels of potentially harmful vapors in the caves.

For the first time in 40 years, there was no sunrise service on Easter Sunday in the caves. Dozens of school field trips have been canceled.

"We've never experienced anything like this," said Turilli, now Meramec Caverns' president and director of operations. "We've had to disappoint a lot of youngsters."

That included a Chicago family who found a "closed" sign at the entrance Friday.

"In this age of technology, the kids don't see stuff like this," said Patricia Alvarez Garcia of Chicago, who drove more than an hour to bring four young relatives to the caverns after attending graduation ceremonies for her grandson at Fort Leonard Wood. "We're from the city; they've never seen anything like this."

Meramec Caverns shut down March 10 after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency measured trichloroethylene, or TCE, vapors that were above a level of health concern. TCE is a solvent used mainly to remove grease from metal parts but also is an ingredient in adhesives, paint removers and other products. The agency classifies it as a carcinogen, or potential cause of cancer.

The EPA says the vapors probably come from more than 4 miles away at the former TRW/Ramsey facility in Sullivan, where auto parts were made, and the Sullivan landfill. Both are associated with a Superfund site on the EPA's national priorities list since 2002. TRW is now charged with reducing the levels of TCE in the caverns. The work is expected to involve improvements to air ventilation systems at an unknown cost.

The caves are expected to remain closed until at least midsummer. That means nearly 100 people could be out of jobs at the caverns. The motels, restaurants, Jesse James Wax Museum and other nearby attractions in Stanton that are supported by cave tourists are also expected to take a hit. …

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