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.
“The economic impact is going to be tremendous,” said Turilli, who is running as an independent candidate for Missouri governor. “All these places use us as the anchor.”
Meramec Caverns had just reopened in February after a complete remodel of its restaurant and gift shop to repair damage from the historic winter flooding of the Meramec River. It’s unclear whether the flooding is connected to the levels of TCE in the air.
TCE has been detected at Meramec Caverns since at least 2003, when samples showed unhealthy concentrations, the EPA says. It notes, “The cave owner took immediate steps to increase air flow within the cave, and samples collected in 2004 and 2005 showed those actions had decreased TCE concentrations to acceptable levels.”
But in 2011, new research prompted the agency to lower the level at which exposure to TCE is believed to pose health risks.
Since December 2014, the EPA says, it has monitored actions by the caverns’ owner, Meramec Caverns Enterprises, which helped but did not keep the vapors below the level of concern. Based on data from late 2015, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry recommended to the EPA in February that Meramec Caverns workers not be exposed to the TCE levels detected there.
The attraction, beneath the rolling hills of the Meramec Valley, is off Interstate 44 about 60 miles southwest of St. Louis. It bills itself as the state’s largest commercial cave. It opened in 1933. Guided tours for more than 100,000 visitors a year follow lighted, smoothed pathways through five of the seven levels in a place once used as a hideout by the outlaw Jesse James.
It also features a campground, riverboat rides, zip line and canoe floats along the Meramec River. Zip line manager Jeremey Anderson is offering a 50 percent discount to visitors who came for a cave tour.