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Desalinated deep-sea water from Kona is now 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, barely keeping pace with demand in Japan, where it sells 1.5-liter bottles of its MaHaLo brand for $4 to $6 each.
Four other companies now are planning to cash in on the deep-sea water trend. 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 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 currently selling the deep-sea water from Hawaii, is expanding its plant and has applied to sell the water in the United States, although for much less than that in Japan.
In addition to Koyo, Asia's thirst for Hawaiian seawater also has attracted Los Angeles-based Deep Sea Water International; Japanese-owned Enzamin USA; Korean-owned Savers Holdings Ltd.; and Japanese-owned Hawaii Deep Marine Inc.
Located on the 870-acre NELHA site, these companies spent a combined $65 million converting black lava fields into parking lots and building factories in 2003. This year they are investing another $85 million to $100 million.
Besides the startup costs and the expensive desalination process, the companies will spend millions on shipping tons of water to Asia.
"Why Hawaii and pay so much transportation? Because Hawaiian water is best," said Yoshiyuki Furuno, general manager of Enzamin USA.
He said Hawaiian products have strong brand recognition in Japan for being high-quality, natural and pure.
Savers General Manager Guy Toyama said bottled sea water has been around in Japan since the mid-1990s, but 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. Its 2-liter bottles will retail for about $4 and half-liter bottles for about $2.
The company will desalinate its water using reverse osmosis and electrolysis and produce as many as 12 million bottles a year.
The state of Hawaii pumps the water using two pipes that go down 2,000 feet and then transports it to the companies, which do the desalination, filtering, bottling and packaging. The state will soon complete construction of a new 55-inch pipe that goes 3,000 feet deep.
Koyo claims 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 or humans, the company said on its Web site.