Meramec Caverns Suspends Tours Due to Air, Water Contamination

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Meramec Caverns, a major tourist attraction in Missouri, is temporarily closed off to visitors due to unsafe levels of TCE, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The show cave has been temporarily closed since March. (Photo Credit: Belleville News-Democrat)

Article courtesy of KAITLYN SCHWERS | April 1, 2016 | Belleville News-Democrat | Shared as educational material

Meramec Caverns confirmed Friday that it is temporarily closed until further notice due to what the Environmental Protection Agency believes to be unsafe levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) contaminating the cave air and groundwater as well as its entry building containing a restaurant and gift shop. It says it “voluntarily closed” the large commercial cave off to visitors and staff earlier in March.

TCE is described by the Agency of Toxic Substances & Disease Registry as a colorless liquid “mainly used as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts.” Meramec Cavern Enterprises, Inc. decided to cease cave tours for the time being based on historical data trends and recommendations from the Agency of Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to a March 10 letter from EPA Region 7 to Lester Turilli Jr., director of operations at Meramec Caverns. Turilli is also an independent candidate in Missouri’s governor race.

“We decided to close in the best interest of the public and staff,” Turilli said Friday. “It has been hard.”

The public health issue has been under investigation at Meramec Caverns for 30 years. It was first detected by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources during a routine sampling of a well in 1986. The EPA believes that TCE vapors originate from two sources: the former TRW/Ramsey facility in downtown Sullivan, Mo. and the Sullivan landfill. Turilli says the old manufacturing plant is 4.5 miles away from Meramec Caverns.

Both are associated with the Oak Grove Village Well Superfund Site, which the EPA says is part of its “National Priorities List.” More recently, a recommendation came down from Agency of Toxic Substances & Disease Registry to stop exposing TCE to cavern employees and guests, based on new data from late 2015. Government agencies involved in the investigation include EPA, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the U.S. Geological Survey.

WE DECIDED TO CLOSE IN THE BEST INTEREST OF THE PUBLIC AND STAFF. IT HAS BEEN HARD.

The National Toxicology Program in January 2015 issued a preliminary listing recommendation that TCE is “known to be a human carcinogen” — a substance capable of causing cancer. The Agency of Toxic Substances says it has been found in “underground water sources and many surface waters as a result of the manufacture, use and disposal of the chemical.”

Meramec Caverns is a family-owned tourist attraction located in the LaJolla Spring Cave Complex near Stanton, Mo., off Interstate 44. It is approximately 82 miles from the metro-east. The website claims that Meramec Caverns is “the largest commercial cave in the state of Missouri.”

Turilli says Meramec Caverns attracts more than 100,000 visitors per year, including a “considerable amount from Illinois.” He says the temporary closure was posted on the website March 9 — the day before it received a letter from the EPA, outlining the agreed upon plan. He says Meramec Caverns hopes to re-open its gift shop and restaurant soon. Currently, its zipline, campgrounds and motel are still open to visitors. The cave, however, is not expected to continue its tours until a solution is physically put in place.

According to the EPA, “the potentially responsible party,” TRW Automotive U.S., LLC, is expected to install “upgraded airlock doors inside the cave, evaluate options for separating air in the cave’s adjoining gift shop from contaminated air in the cave itself, evaluate the effectiveness of air cleaning systems, drill one or more ventilation air shafts into back portions of the cave and implement a comprehensive air sampling and air flow monitoring plan to better characterize human health risks and measure the work’s effectiveness.”

Turilli says the ongoing issue is affecting Meramec Caverns negatively, and the beginning of tourist season starts now. He added that Meramec Caverns is also still recovering from extensive recent flooding. Heavy rains put Meramec under 31.5 feet of water, according to Turilli.

“If we’re not drawing big economic impact, it creates a negative effect,” Turilli said Friday. “We’ve had to make a choice.”

Turilli says he usually hires at least 100 part-time and full-time employees to meet demands of summer tourism, but he said he has been forced to make layoffs. Rather than hiring 100 people, the show cave will likely hire less than 50 to fill those jobs.

“We’re hopeful that we will be open before the peak of the summer,” Turilli continued. “We’re praying.”

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