On January 9, 2014, residents of Charleston, West Virginia woke to the sweet smell of licorice in the air. The sweetness quickly turned sour when they discovered that the odor was the result of a chemical spill from the Freedom Industries facility on the Elk River. Up to 7,500 gallons of the highly toxic chemical crude MCHM leaked from an aboveground tank, contaminating the property and the local watershed. While residents and businesses have lost a year's sleep over the long-term effects of exposure to the contaminated water, Valence Aerosols has given them a reason to sleep better.
Valence Aerosols was founded in 2008 by Gary Whetstone, a mercurial chemistry major at Penn State. He was inspired by a scene from the movie The Crow in which one of the bad guys says, "You know Lake Erie actually caught on fire once from all the crap floating around in it. I wish I could have seen that."
Whetstone says, "I didn't think too much about that line, other than it was a pretty bad-assed line. But then I went out to dinner with my girlfriend at one of those Greek restaurants, and we ordered the Saganaki -you know the flaming cheese. When they lit that shit up I immediately thought of that burning water. It was like an epiphany. Then I thought, 'There's gotta be a way to commercialize that."
Valence had its first big success in 2003 with Methanizer, an air freshener derived from captured landfill gas. It originally had a military application in Afghanistan. The CIA sprayed the aerosolized methane into caves used by the Taliban and al Qaeda. The intent was to either drive them out into the open with the odor or accumulate enough gas in the enclosed space to make it explode with minimal ignition. When the tactic proved ineffective, Valence had to find success in the civilian market place.
It wasn't long before Valence found a niche market of what they refer to as "subversion consumers," or consumers who purchase goods and services for the express purpose of fucking with other people. "I was three months behind on my rent," says Valence Customer Tamara Steffenfrau. "All I had to do was spray Methanizer all over my apartment, smack myself in the nose to make it bloody, and then call the health department and report sick building syndrome. I got comped for four months."
They found further success with an industrial-solvent-scented car freshener, and a shampoo partially scented with by-product vinyl chloride from PVC manufacturing. Having established themselves on the discount shelves, Valence decided to make a play for the high-end retail market. That's what brought them to the Elk River.
Valence has collected contaminated water directly from the river and from the taps of residents and businesses all over Charleston. Mixing this contaminated water with other compounds has given them their latest product, "Anise Allure." It provides a sharp licorice aroma with hints of cinnamon and coffee. What was a major liability and health hazard is now a $300-a-bottle luxury scent that is already flying off the shelves. The Charleston residents are given a share of the sales.
While some residents of the Charleston have misgivings about selling polluted water for commercial use, others take a more favorable view. "I don't like the idea of making money of selling poison to people. But if I'm selling it to those assholes on Wall Street who make money exploiting us, and those assholes in Hollywood who make money making fun of us, I'm all for it. It'd be nice for me to count some extra cash while they're wondering why they're getting these strange headaches all the time."
Gary Whetstone agrees. "I'm one of the one percent and I believe in giving back Robin Hood-style. When asked about the high price tag for his Anise Allure he said, "No one said class warfare can't be profitable."