Alex Gonzalez didn't envision being able to provide bleach to combat a viral pandemic when he got into disinfecting water used in oil and natural gas drilling 11 years ago.
But amid the current Coronavirus pandemic, Gonzalez has taken some of the mobile disinfecting units he and his family's company – Neptune De Nora – created in Fort Stockton for use on oil well sites, and deployed them to two Texas counties that are short on disinfecting liquids.
“We build all of these units and, darn, if COVID-19 (Coronavirus) doesn't show up,” Gonzalez said.
The units – 14 at present – are built by Neptune in Fort Stockton and contain the patented process equipment from De Nora, a company based overseas in Italy. Each completed unit cost about $550,000.
The ClorTec® mobile treatment units produce sodium hypochlorite, which is the main ingredient found in common bleach, only in a lower concentration.
“If you dilute it, you can spray it everywhere,” Gonzalez said. “I have a bottle, and I use it on gas pumps, the keys, whatever. I have a towel and wipe it down. I can spray it on my clothes and it won't fade the fabric. If I get it on my hands, it doesn't burn or harm you.”
Any use beyond the oil fields requires approval of a county judge or city official, as Neptune is not set up by the EPA as wholesaler or retailer. Essentially, a government body leases the mobile unit and Neptune produces the bleach. It is up to the government entity on what to do with it.
Gonzalez said the need for bleach hit about about two weeks ago.
“My wife, Carol, is in Odessa shopping and calls me to tell me the stores are out of bleach and toilet paper, too,” Gonzalez saids. “She asked me to see if the boys could bring in a gallon from the field. I told her I'd see how much it would cost – it was a joke, but that is got me thinking.
“The shelves at Walmart are still empty unless you get there first-thing in the morning. The key to stopping the spread is killing the virus,” Gonzalez. “This will kill the virus immediately on any surface.”
On March 23, Val Verde County Judge Lewis G. Owens Jr. announced that the liquid disinfectant produced by a mobile Neptune unit will be distributed at locations around Del Rio and Comstock. The distribution was set to start on March 25, after The Pioneer's print deadline.
“Hopefully on Wednesday (March 25) morning, if we can get it all hooked up and set up, we will have five locations where it will be given out, free of charge, to the public,” Owens told local media in Val Verde County.
Free distribution was held last week in Fort Bend County, with people lining up in their cars at 5 a.m. March 22 for the start of free drive-thru distribution in Richmond of a 32-ounce spray bottle of diluted bleach and a gallon of undiluted bleach.
Fort Bend County Judge KP George ended the public distribution on March 23, deeming the operation “no longer essential” – something Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls took to social media to express his disagreement. George has limited future distribution only to county officials and employees.
Gonzalez said he has been contacted by other municipalities, and is in the process of finalizing plans with each. While he has not yet been contacted by Pecos County or the City of Fort Stockton, Gonzalez that said should a need arise locally, Neptune could accommodate any local request.
Gonzalez hopes a unit might be of use nationally, especially in cities with larger Coronavirus outbreaks. Each unit could easily supply the needs of a community or city, including hospitals, prison, government buildings as well as public needs.
The hypochlorite produced by the Neptune De Nora technology is normally used to remove bacteria from hydraulic fracturing fluids prior to being pump into wells, as well as recycling the fluids after use.
Hypochlorite made in the process is at a concentration of 0.8 percent – less than one percent – or 8,000 parts per million (ppm). As such, it is not considered a hazardous material.
Bleach commonly purchased in a retail store is 8 percent, or 80,000 ppm.
The national Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends a concentration of between 500 to 1,000 ppm to kill viruses on surfaces, including the Coronavirus. So, either product diluted properly will effectively kill viruses immediately on contact.
“You can still use it, but you have to realize it is at lower level after time,” Gonzalez said.
The major difference is that bleach in stores has preservatives to extend shelf live, while the Neptune product begins to loose potency after 48 hours and, after two weeks, will be down around 5,000 ppm undiluted, Gonzalez said.
“That's the perplexing part – where do I put it? I don't have shelf life because there are no additives,” Gonzalez said.
Fort Bend stored the product in 300-gallon containers before prepping into smaller containers for distribution.
De Nora's technology is primarily used to kill bacteria in municipal water supplies. It is also used for salt-water swimming pools.
The process uses common salt and water to make a brine that is then run through titanium plates and exposed to positive and negative electrical charges. This produces the sodium hypochlorite, that is then added to the water supply in order to kill bacteria.
Gonzalez made the connection to use it onsite for oil and natural gas drilling. He starting building the units in 2016 for use on sites around the Permian Basin. Last year, De Nora purchased Neptune and formed Neptune De Nora, of which the Gonzalez family – in its fifth generation in Pecos County – retains an ownership share.
The mobile units are able to keep up the high-volume water processing needed in the oil fields, producing up to 25,000 gallons of sodium hypochlorite in 24 hours.
Gonzalez said a fracking operation can use 100 barrels – or 4,200 gallons – of fluid per minute, with more than 25 million gallons – or 600,000 barrels – needed during an average operation.
“It's just like treating municipal water,” Gonzalez said. “It's that same purpose. We just do it at a higher volume. Fracking is using as much water as a municipality.”
Once on site, all the unit needs is a supply of electricity and water. The unit includes a climate-controlled lab for testing and monitoring.
The Gonzalez family still uses the land settled by Alex's great-great-grandfather in 1800s. Alex's father, Alex R. Gonzalez, was a longtime judge whose name appears on the county courtroom used by the 83rd and 112th district courts.
Alex's son, Lambert, oversees most of the company's operations and does much of the design work on the units. Alex's wife and daughters handle the administrative side, and his son-in-law oversees the yard of the company's site off 7D Road.
Gonzalez said he started in the business of oxidant disinfection for oil fields more than 11 years ago with a chlorine dioxide process – which avoided the use of biocides that he called “poison and cancer causing.”
“It was safer and cheaper and the market accepted it,” Gonzalez said.
He solid that company and headed to Pennsylvania for the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom. He returned to Pecos County in 2016 amid a slump in the Pennsylvania market. His non-compete agreement with his former company had expired, which lead to the development with De Nora.
The normal lease price for a unit is $16,000 per day. Gonzalez said he is leasing the units to municipalities for about $8,000 per day, which includes transportation to and from the site and set up.