Canonsburg company finds niche in shale drilling for treating wastewater

Posted February 3, 2015

Katelyn Ferral
Tribune Review

The way Aquatech figures, it makes more sense to treat shale gas wastewater where its born — at the well — than to treat it off-site.

The Canonsburg-based company treats and recycles industrial wastewater with a growing division dedicated to water-intensive shale gas drilling operations.

“We feel if you can reuse the water, that's the cheapest mode of disposal,” said Devesh Mittal, vice president and general manager for the company's shale gas division. “If you can take it and deal with it as fast as you produce it, then you're doing your job.”

Aquatech's 2013 revenue was more than $150 million, with an 18 percent growth rate during the past five years, according to the company, which is privately owned and run by brothers Venkee Sharma, its CEO, and Devesh Sharma, its managing director. It also treats abandoned acid mine drainage water, and wastewater from refineries, coal gasification facilities and coal seams.

Aquatech serves all the “major players” in the Marcellus including EQT, Range Resources, Chesapeake, Exco Cabot Oil & Gas and Shell, Mittal said. The company has more than 600 employees worldwide, in North America, the Middle East, China and India, and boasts more than 1,700 total industrial water purification systems in 60 countries. In Pennsylvania, the company serves both conventional and unconventional oil and gas producers, Mittal said.

Aquatech was founded in 1981 by Prem Sharma, Devesh and Venkee Sharma's father. He emigrated from India to the United States and died in 1991, but not before deciding to build a water treatment business in Pittsburgh focused on the steel industry. The company has expanded, reaching other industries, including coal wastewater and refining.

As shale drilling grew up around the company in Western Pennsylvania, the company began developing technology and exploring treatment options to help gas companies, Mittal said.

“That kind of became an entrepreneurial effort, like, ‘Hey, this is in our backyard, we should solve this problem,' ” he said.

Aquatech is targeting shale drilling clients with mobile water treatment units that are driven on to well pads to clean and recycle water on site. The company develops modular treatments stations that can be broken down, shipped to well pads and rebuilt on site. Its on-site delivery service distinguishes it from other water treatment companies, Devesh Sharma said.

“You end up designing technology on wheels because the goal line's always moving,” Sharma said. The company would not say how much one of its units cost but said the price is not prohibitive. Water treatment is typically contracted out by exploration and production companies like other oil field services, he said.

For larger companies that are fracking and drilling wells continuously and reuse their water across operations, Aquatech's mobile treatment unit is not the most efficient, said Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Fort Worth's Range Resources. The company has used Aquatech's services in the past but does not rely on the company to treat its wastewater, he said, though he noted Aquatech's technology and business was known and respected in the Marcellus.

“There's no need to pay to treat the water if we're just going to use it again,” he said. A mobile treatment service might make more sense for a smaller drilling company or a well that is in an area that has not been drilled before, where other treatment options don't exist.

“It's a good service. It's good that it exists because it provides flexibility,” he said. “It just doesn't make sense for us operationally.”

Aquatech's mobile treatment technologies are custom-designed for companies depending on the kind of wastewater they are producing, including water that comes out of the well with shale gas or oil and fracking flowback. The company has central treatment facilities — Franklin, Josephine Creekside and Tioga.

Aquatech hopes the risk of leaking wastewater from storage ponds, even in a hole that's lined to prevent leaks, will help drive its business in the state.

“The industry's maturing,” Sharma said. “They know where they're going to drill, they know what water they're going to get, the trucks (are) taking the water, (but) where are they going to take it?”

Space in injection wells and storage ponds is limited, Sharma said, and at some point, recycling all the water may be the only option.

Figuring out how to remove all dissolved salts from shale drilling wastewater, known as desalination, is particularly tricky in the Marcellus shale, which yields water with more salt than other shale plays, Mittal said.

“If we can solve the problem here, we can solve the problem anywhere,” he said.

Acid mine drainage is also an Aquatech target. The company looks to reuse contaminated run-off from abandoned mines for fracking.

The company expects its global footprint to grow as other countries begin to understand and explore shale formations and the unwanted water that comes with it.

“Focusing on the right opportunities and the right markets is a big challenge,” Sharma said.