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VOL. 41 | NO. 13 | Friday, March 31, 2017

Prospectors strike gold with mineral water from Linden

By Joe Morris

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Founders of Planet H20 Rob Smithson, left, and Carey Bruner show off their artesian bottled water. The source of the bottled water is an artesian well in Linden, about 90 miles southwest of downtown Nashville.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

The Oscars were held in Los Angeles earlier this year, but it’s likely the team from Planet H2O didn’t see the telecast.

They had their own competition to worry about.

They were in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, to compete in the 27th annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting, known in some circles as the “Academy Awards of Water.”

More than 100 waters were on hand in multiple categories, representing 19 states, five Canadian provinces and 12 foreign countries.

Planet H2O didn’t fare too badly, just missing the podium and taking fourth place in the Best Bottled Water Category. A good showing for an outfit that only got up and running after literally coming across its water source by accident.

“We happened upon a unique source of water in 2012, when we were doing some exploration drilling near Linden,” says Rob Smithson, business development manager and one of the company’s founders.

“We were about a mile deep, really just treasure hunting in the deep formations, and came across fresh water. That’s a complete anomaly below 500 feet, so we thought it might deserve a little attention.”

Smithson serves as land manager for Planet Energy, an oil and gas exploration company based in Knoxville and owned by his uncle, Jim Bruner, who has more than 30 years’ experience in the business.

When the team hit the water source, they wasted no time in having it tested. When that showed it to be fresh water, further analysis was ordered.

“We took a second look and found that this was a special type of water,” Smithson points out. “It has a very high mineral content, lots of magnesium, calcium, potassium and silica, which is like some international artesian water. There also weren’t a lot of elements that would need to be filtered out. We knew we were onto something.”

Smithson partnered with his uncle, as well as cousin Carey Bruner, to form Planet H2O. Then the process of getting the water up and bottled began. It took about four years.

Planet H20 water is full of naturally occurring minerals and is also free of tritium – a potentially harmful isotope of hydrogen

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

“We had to figure out a lot of things early, like whether we’d bottle it at the source or transport it,” Smithson explains. “We decided to do everything there, so we built a 20,000-square-foot botting facility onsite. We also put in steel casing so the well is cased completely down so there’d be no interference from surface water.

“Our water is trapped in 500 million-year-old rock, and the casing means that we can keep it free of tritium, fallout from nuclear testing that’s in surface water, as well as pesticides or another runoff.”

Bottling began in March 2016, and even though the water goes through some machinery, it’s untouched by human hands. It receives some light filtration via a 5-micron filter and some UV lighting, but that’s it, Smithson explains.

“It’s the same way mineral waters such as Fiji are bottled,” he adds. “There’s no reverse osmosis, which is what spring water and others go through to pull the minerals out. When you purify water like that, you pull out the healthy benefits.”

The Planet H2O team learned lots about mineral water as the bottling plant and the water were coming out of the ground, and during their research they learned about the Berkeley Springs event. A shoulder shrug and a couple of why-nots later, they were contestants.

“We’d read a lot online about the benchmarks for a good water, and everything kept coming back to this prestigious tasting,” Smithson says. “It looked like where a lot of waters got their start, and it’s one of the oldest and longest-running competitions in the world, so we thought we’d put ourselves in and see what happened.

“We wanted to promote ourselves as saying our water is great-tasting, but if it’s just us saying it, that sounds biased. Now we have some experts who agree!”

They do indeed.

“Good water rises to the top,” says Jill Klein Rone, producer of the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting.

“I think it’s wonderful that Planet H2O is talking about their showing, because we’ve had waters come in and win their first time out, and others never even get in the finals.

“In addition to the tastings and competition, we also have seminars put on from different people representing different aspects of the water industry, so the event really is anything and everything about water.”

Now it’s up to Planet H2O to parlay its good showing into an expanded business reach. With only a year into operation, Planet H2O is still limited in its reach. The booming Nashville market is next in its sights, and then other areas of Tennessee, and then it’ll be time for toeholds in other Southeast regions.

“Our core demographic is people who want to buy local, and who are looking for a premium product, because if you’re in Tennessee we offer both those things,” Smithson says.

“We’re going to grow organically, but we’ve got a product that’s receiving lots of attention now, so there’s a lot of positive movement. There really is a ‘craft water’ movement, where there are water pairings at restaurants and things like that.

“We’re coming along at a good time; in Tennessee craft beers have exploded, so why not have a premium, high-end craft water that’s also from your backyard?”

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