Monday, October 11, 2004

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii — Known for its $30-a-pound Kona coffee beans, posh $1,000-a-night hotel suites and $1 million ocean-view condos, the west coast of Hawaii’s Big Island now is cashing in with another pricey offering: $6 bottled water from the bottom of the ocean.

Desalinated deep-sea water from Kona is the state’s fastest-growing export, with demand soaring in Japan. Super-cold water sucked up from thousands of feet below the Pacific Ocean’s surface is being marketed as healthy, pure, mineral-rich drinking water.

Koyo USA Corp. already is producing more than 200,000 bottles per day and says it can’t keep up with demand in Japan, where it sells 1.5-liter bottles of its Mahalo brand for from $4 to $6 each.

“We couldn’t ask for better sales,” spokesman John Frosted said. “At this point, we can’t make enough. We have no surplus.”

Four other companies hope to cash in on the deep-sea water fad, and so is the state, which collects royalties and rent from the bottlers based at the state Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) property next to the Big Island’s Kona International Airport.

The state pumps the chilly water from 2,000 feet beneath the sea, and the companies pay a few cents per bottle to use the official NELHA logo on their label, certifying the deep-sea water was collected at the state facility.

Koyo, the only company selling the deep-sea water from Hawaii, is expanding its plant and has applied to sell the water in the United States. It will sell for much less than in Japan.

Asia’s thirst for Hawaiian seawater also has attracted Los Angeles-based Deep Sea Water International; Japanese-owned Enzamin USA and Hawaii Deep Marine Inc.; and South Korean-owned Savers Holdings Ltd.

Yoshiyuki Furuno, general manager of Enzamin USA, said Hawaiian products have strong brand recognition in Japan for being high-quality, natural and pure.

“Japanese people have a very good image of Hawaii as a beautiful place with azure skies, clear seas and gentle breeze,” he said. “They have a very good image for Hawaii.”

Savers General Manager Guy Toyama said bottled seawater has been around in Japan since the mid-1990s but that the Japanese product cannot match the depth, quality and purity of the water from the middle of the Pacific.

Savers plans to begin construction this month and will sell primarily in South Korea before expanding to China and the United States.

Koyo says deep-sea water contains ionized sodium, ionized chlorine, magnesium and calcium, which can help with everything from circulation to metabolism. The depth also protects the water from modern contaminants from industry, farming and humans, the company said on its Web site.

Koyo’s 100,000-square-foot facility features a windowless factory filled with modern stainless-steel machinery, conveyer belts and pipes. Most of the process is automated and runs 17 hours per day.

Light-blue plastic bottles are blown and stacked by a robotic arm before being rinsed, filled, capped and labeled. The bottles then are taken to a large room where employees wearing face masks and hairnets inspect them for loose caps, misplaced labels or damaged bottles.

“This is a sterile, phenomenally modern, robotic, well-run place,” said former NELHA Executive Director Jeff Smith, interviewed just before he left NELHA last month. “It looks like a hospital, it’s so clean.”

When Mr. Smith was first approached three years ago by a company that wanted to bottle and sell ocean water, he thought it was a joke. Now, government and business leaders from around the world have visited NELHA to study the phenomenon.

Mr. Smith said he realized there was a need for clean drinking water, especially with the world’s expanding population and fresh water sources being polluted by industry and humans.

“Many people have said, ‘Hey, Jeff, that’s a fad.’ I’m thinking, ‘So was the car,’” he said. “People need water.”

Mr. Smith, who has left NELHA to work for Deep Sea Water International, said the bottlers diversify Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy.

“No matter what the tourism industry does, these guys will keep running,” Mr. Smith said.

Mark Anderson, administrator of the state’s Foreign Trade Zone division of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, said Hawaii always had difficulty creating new export industries because Asia and the West Coast have more resources and cheaper labor.

But Hawaii may have discovered an inexhaustible gold mine.

“There’s a lot of water out there. I don’t think they’re going to run out,” Mr. Anderson said.

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