July 29, 2003 11:00 pm
Scott Powell stands next to one of his company's units that use electrocoagulation to purify water. (Submitted photos).
Scott Powell stands next to one of his company's units that use electrocoagulation to purify water. (Submitted photos).

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

A Colorado company has bought a large warehouse in La Grande and started manufacturing equipment that has a world of potential, said one of its owners.

Scott Powell, who operates Powell Water Systems Inc. in Centennial, Colo., has purchased the old Del Monte building at Spruce Street and Madison Avenue.

The company manufactures machines that eliminate a variety of contaminants from impure water. The machines, using a process called electrocoagulation, come in different sizes, Powell said, from a machine that will treat a cup of water per minute to one that will handle 2,500 gallons per minute. The former sells for $200; the latter for $1.5 million.

The machines are made to order, but the market is worldwide, Powell said in a phone interview from offices near Denver. Potential clients include municipalities, the U.S. Forest Service, private manufacturing companies.

"We have talked to the Forest Service about using the machine to take phosphates out of the solutions they use to drop on wildfires," Powell said.

"The process works great on municipal sewer plants. It can take heavy metals, oil, grease, bacteria out of the water."

Powell said one market "we will definitely target is the municipal sector.

"There is an upcoming market in the U.S. for lowering arsenic content in drinking water," Powell said.

Regulations now allow up to 50 parts per billion in municipal drinking water. New rules will cut that to 10 ppb, Powell said.

"If the next elected president leaves those regulations in place, 25 percent of the drinking water in the U.S. will be out of compliance," Powell said. His machines can take the arsenic out of the water, leaving the material in a non-hazardous oxide form.

"We see a big potential market there," he said.

Powell has seven employees now at the La Grande site and the future employment "depends on how many people order units. We see this as a growth industry and think we have a lot of potential."

"I'm confident we can sell as many as are needed. We are taking all the orders we can get," Powell said.

The Del Monte warehouse has 20,000 square feet of space, Powell said.

He already has several potential customers in the area.

The company has U.S. patents for all the equipment it builds, as well as patents in a half-dozen foreign countries and patents pending in 20 more countries, Powell said.

Powell grew up in Meridian, Idaho, and graduated from Eastern Oregon University with a degree in chemistry in 1980. He started working with electrocoagulation in 1985. Powell Water Systems was started in Aurora, Colo., in 1999, he said.

He married a La Grande woman, Debra Rasmussen, whose family operates Terra Magic Inc. and Terra Magic Seeds, a large agricultural operation.

Powell will put on a demonstration of one of his machines in

La Grande at 9 a.m. Aug. 4 at the La Grande plant. A number of people have been invited to the demonstration.

This specific unit, which can handle 30 gallons per minute, eventually will be installed at a wastewater hauler company in Denver to remove suspended solids and heavy metals from the water collected from car-wash businesses, among others.

These machines use a unique, patented electrocoagulation chamber that directly converts incoming alternating current electricity to direct current voltage.

The electric current passes from metal bars extended into the water and through the liquid and destabilizes suspended, emulsified or dissolved contaminants in an aqueous medium, according to the company's Web site. The contaminants can then be removed through another process.

The electrochemical system has proven to be able to cope with a variety of wastewaters, according to Powell.

These waters are paper pulp mill waste, metal plating, tanneries, canning factories, steel mill effluent, slaughter houses, chromate, lead and mercury laden effluents, as well as domestic sewage. These wastewaters will be reduced to clear, clean, odorless and reusable water, Powell said.

One person locally who is excited about the process is James Erskine of U.S. Bank, which provided the financing for the purchase of the old Del Monte building this summer. He attended a demonstration for a Salem company.

He described it:

"We saw three 55-gallon drums brought in. They contained enough arsenic that if any drop of the material got on your tongue, it would kill you.

"They poured eight ounces of the material in the drum into a glass. It was smoky and translucent. After the electrocoagulation process it was a chemically altered product. In about three or four minutes, about half the glass was pitch black and the rest was reasonably clear. At the end (of the process) the water was 99.9 percent clear; you could drink it.

"The rest of the material was changed to an ion form and no longer a hazardous waste material."

Erskine said the process has great possibilities in agriculture, such as being able to take heavy nitrates from pig pens or to treat the large amount of wastewater created in dairy operations.

Major cities now running out of water, some using desalination to obtain water from the ocean, could use such a system, he said.

"And the company just sold a machine to a South Korean textile company that was using dyes that couldn't be recycled. Now they recover the dye and use it again," Erskine said.