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COROLLA (AP) - An Outer Banks developer's proposal to dump salt water into the freshwater Currituck Sound is raising concern about the brine's impact on fish, aquatic plants and the area's trademark waterfowl.

``Any further infusion of salt water will hurt the natural grasses in the sound as well as the black bass population,' County Commissioner Frances P. Walker said,.The health of the environment also is a factor in the area's economy.

The 120-square-mile sound in northeastern North Carolina has lured duck hunters and bass fishermen to Currituck County for decades. Fishermen alone add about $1 million to the local economy each year, The News and Observer of Raleigh reported Sunday.

The developers of Ocean Hill, an upscale vacation community north of Corolla on the Outer Banks, have applied for a state permit to dump concentrated brine from a water purification plant into the sound's mildly brackish waters.

They have also filed an application for a more expensive option: discharging the brine into the Atlantic Ocean.

The staff of the state Division of Environmental Management earlier recommended approval of the sound-side discharges. But it decided to take another look because of opposition from the state Wildlife Resources Commission, the Currituck County commissioners and residents who spoke at a stormy public meeting last month.

``It's still up in the air,' said Dale Overcash of the division's water quality section.

James ``Jimbo' Ward, one of the five Ocean Hill partners, said he didn't think the brine would harm the sound.

``The county is coming from a position of almost no research,' he said, adding that some county officials used the issue as a campaign issue during the May primary election. ``The developer is the easiest person to go after.'

But Yates Barber of Elizabeth City, a wildlife biologist and adviser to the Albemarle Pamlico Estuarine Study, said salinity could destroy aquatic plants, key elements to the life in the sound.

``It is a very shallow sound with a lot of sandy bottom,' he said. ``Plants are important in helping keep water clear, and clear water helps plants and plankton to grow. Plants are valuable food to waterfowl, other birds and fish.'

Barber said the system was thrown out of balance between 1985 and 1988, when drought raised the salinity of the sound and killed many of the plants.

The submerged aquatic plants and black bass were also damaged when the city of Virginia Beach, Va., pumped ocean water into Back Bay at the north end of the sound, he said. That pumping has since been halted.

The Division of Environmental Management will have to decide on the sound-side permit by July, Overcash said. The ocean discharge application is still under consideration.

Ward said the developers would not withdraw the sound-side application.

``I'm going to try to do what's best for the development and stay out of trouble with the state and the county,' Ward said. ``If I can pull that off, they ought to make me St. Jimbo.'

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