Owner of Meramec Caverns hopes to reopen soon

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SULLIVAN, MO (KPLR) - With the start of the summer tourist season just a couple of weeks away, one of Missouri`s most popular attractions is scrambling to reopen.

Meramec Caverns was forced to close March 10, after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found the air in the cave had an unhealthy level of a tritchloroethylene, or TCE, a solvent used to degrease auto parts.

The problem is thought to have started 40 years ago, when a nearby factory dumped TCE, allowing it to reach the groundwater.

Its vapors have been seeping into the air from the cave`s underground river ever since.

Now, because of a change in government standards, the EPA says the levels of TCE found in the cave exceed the amount considered safe.

Before the cave can reopen, the levels have to be lowered.  To do that, they have installed an airlock to isolate the portion of the cave where the TCE levels are highest.

They are also adding more ventilation shafts, air scrubbers, and separate air handlers for the cave and the Visitors Center.

The closure has been tough on nearby businesses, like Cavern Canoes, which gets half its customers from the cave.

'We are just hoping we can make it through it, that we have good weather so maybe people will still come for a weekend trip,' said owner Christina Lambing.

The owners hope the caverns will be able to reopen soon.

'If we were able to open by Memorial Day that would be fantastic,' said Meramec Caverns President Lester Turilli.

'Those were our initial hopes. We are not quite sure at this point but we are hoping to be open before the summer heat hits," he said.

A spokesperson for the EPA says some of the strategies to address the contamination are still being implemented and that it is not possible to offer a date when the work will be finished.

Meramec Caverns is hoping tourists will remember that the zip line and the campgrounds are still open.