W.Va. Chemical Leak: You Should Know What’s Right Next Door

  • Karan Ireland spoke out about the regulation of drinking water. Photo: Karan Ireland

September 5, 2014
By Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

This story won first place in a competition known as the 24-Hour Radio Race from KCRW's Independent Producer Project. Boiko-Weyrauch won a thousand dollars, and this work will also appear on a program called UnFictional.

Karan Ireland knew something wasn’t right one cold January morning.

“Looking back at everything, I determined that it was the sixth of January, I smelled something in my bathroom. It was a sickly sweet smell, although I’ll tell you it smells exactly like sugar-free Red Bull. That’s what I associate it with now.”

After taking a long shower and beginning her drive to work, Ireland began to feel feverish. Blaming it on flu season, she turned her car around and headed home. 

But the next morning, she realized that others had noticed something strange.

“I saw a friend of mine post on Facebook ‘Why does Edgewood smell like licorice?’”

The licorice smell turned out to be the chemical 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol, or MCHM, which was leaking from a nearly 50,000-gallon tank owned and operated by Freedom Industries along the Elk River. The tank was located just half a mile from the water intake. Nearly 300,000 customers rely on West Virginia American Water to provide drinking water from that intake.

“I can remember putting socks over the taps in our bathroom because when you get up in the middle of the night, it’s easy to turn on the water and get a drink or brush your teeth, wash your hands, and it was easy to forget.”

Ireland turned into a “newly minted environmentalist,” and she is a worried mother.

“She pretty much just tells me not to, but then I’ll sneak behind her back and get tap water,” her son Dylan, 13, says.

Her daughter Genevieve, 11, says she remembers the day when the water started to taste “gross.”

“You would think that drinking water is something they would be protected above all else because we all have to have it, but it’s not he case. The water company should have wanted to know what was in their backyard and why didn’t they?” Ireland says. “They end up saying that you can’t test for all 85,000 chemicals that are not regulated and not tested, but certainly you could test for the ones that are right next door.”

Images courtesy of Karan Ireland.