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Company's system purifies liquid in Marcellus Shale drilling

| Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2010

EAU CLAIRE — Drilling companies rushing to withdraw Pennsylvania's natural gas supplies trapped in the Marcellus Shale rock formation face liquidity issues.

The problems: Where to find one million to five million gallons of water needed to fracture shale a mile underground to release gas, and what to do with the 30 percent to 60 percent of the polluted waste water returned to the surface once the process is completed?

One possible answer is operating at a natural gas well located in northern Butler County. Altela Inc. of Albuquerque, N.M., has developed and patented a water treatment system that improves on Mother Nature's process for converting salt water to fresh water, or rain.

The Altela process virtually eliminates most pollutants in waste water, leaving behind distilled water containing 20 times less salt that ordinary tap water, Altela says, which can be used repeatedly in the fracturing process, called "fracking" by drillers.

Using what's known as thermal distillation, the process, brand named "AltelaRain" has garnered the approval of water quality experts in New Mexico and Colorado and thus far has impressed Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection officials.

Altela's system won $886,025 from the U.S. Department of Energy for an 18-month project at another Butler County well to prove its capabilities. Total project cost is nearly $1.8 million.

"We visited this site to witness a test of the equipment, and by all accounts, it seems to work well at removing contaminants from fracking and drilling waste water," said DEP spokesman Tom Rathbun.

Stan Berdell, owner of Kittanning-based natural gas production company BLX Inc., has watched the Altela process work at his well near Eau Claire since its installation last October. He did his homework prior to agreeing to place the system.

"We talked with the Altela people for about six to eight months, really kicked the tires," said Berdell, who owns and operates about 600 in-state wells. "We've been selling our frack water to local treatment facilities, but that's expensive. With Altela's system, if you put in 100 barrels of what's called produced water, you get out 80 to 85 gallons of clean water, and only 15 to 20 gallons of bad water that must be disposed of."

BLX and CWM Environmental Inc. of Kittanning are partnering with Altela to place the New Mexico company's treatment system at BLX's wells.

A new ruling in Pennsylvania that takes effect in less than a year mandates that all water used in natural gas drilling no longer can be discharged into state waters unless first treated to remove salts and minerals.

"Water management is a big deal when it comes to fracking," said David Dzombak, associate dean at Carnegie Mellon University's College of Engineering. "The water that comes out of the ground following fracking can be five to 10 times saltier than saltwater. It's a complex water to treat."

Altela CEO Ned Godshall said it costs about 25 cents a gallon to get rid of waste water, more than $10 for a 42-gallon barrel. The installation at Berdell's natural gas well is treating waste water for $5 a barrel. In addition, it saves transportation and storage costs.

"Our system can use low-grade waste heat generated during the evaporation phase of the process to operate — there's no need for any electricity," Godshall said. Energy costs are about 25 percent of comparable distillation/evaporation processes, according to Altela.

"They still must deal with the end product that is a highly concentrated waste water," DEP's Rathbun said. "However, this process does greatly reduce the amount of waste water generated at the drilling site, greatly reduces the amount of waste water hauled off-site, and reduces the amount of fresh water that must be taken to the site."

One complaint the DEP has with Altela's system is that it's small, able to treat 100 barrels, 4,200 gallons, of waste water daily. With a typical Marcellus Shale well using 1 million to 3-plus million gallons, even with multiple AltelaRain systems working in tandem, waste water still poses a problem.

Godshall said his company will construct a large AltelaRain plant by June in Northeastern Pennsylvania. The plant will treat about 2,500 barrels, 105,000 gallons, of waste water daily.

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