Napoleon once said that an army moves on its stomach, referring to the fact that food is a vital factor in the success of any military campaign. More important than food, though, is water, and in Afghanistan where U.S. Marines and Navy Seabees are taking front-line positions in the war against terrorism, that fresh drinking water is made possible by Terra Group Corp. in Allentown.

Based in the Bridgeworks Industrial Center, the 15-year-old company founded by civil engineer Primo Acernese is in the middle of a multi-year, $50 million contract to provide Lightweight Water Purification Systems (LWPS) to the Marines and U.S. Navy. These portable-tactical emergency water systems allow the forward units to purify water from just about any source, such as a lake, stream, river or ocean and are capable of removing even chemical, biological and nuclear contaminants.

“People don’t realize how important water. It’s always there,” said Acernese. “When you are moving large groups of military like the Marines, and you don’t have water, you don’t go anywhere.”

Founded in 1997 on Harrison Street, Terra Group turned to the Allentown Economic Development Corp (AEDC) and moved to the Bridgeworks Industrial Center – next door to the Lehigh Valley Grand Prix – in 2009 when it acquired the initial Marine Corps contract and needed a quick and dramatic expansion, Acernese said during a recent tour.

“I had virtually no help from any of the finance institutions in the (Lehigh) Valley. The Marine Corps financed this project,” he explained. “AEDC responded by opening up this space. They were the biggest help I had at the time and they facilitated our move-in and start-up.”

A former Fuller Corporation engineer, Acernese recognized the need for a reliable and portable water purification system while working for that company in Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations. Starting with only four people and a much smaller site, his new enterprise now uses up to 130,000 square feet, employs 27 people and will soon be hiring five more to keep up with the demand for the systems.

Approximately 60 percent of the workforce are Allentown residents, according to Anthony Durante of AEDC, and Acernese said he uses Lehigh Valley suppliers for almost all of the parts, though there are some suppliers from elsewhere in Pennsylvania and one from another part of the country.

The LWPS components are assembled in manufacturing, testing and shipping cells spread across the massive space in a building once used to build Mack Trucks. Each one is tested thoroughly before it leaves the building. “These are used for a forward-operating base of about 100 men,” Acernese explains.

“Because they get packed up and shipped to Afghanistan, we have to make sure they work before they leave this building. They are tested for performance, pressure, flow rate, that kind of thing.”