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Dispute threatens toxic tap water study
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    Continuation of a long-running government study on whether contaminated water harmed babies at Camp Lejeune, N.C., hinges on a half-million-dollar payment that is due Sunday.
    The money has been in dispute for months by military and federal health officials, who now say they believe they can reach agreement by Sunday to prevent the project’s derailment.
    The outcome could affect claims by more than 1,000 former residents of the Marine Corps base seeking nearly $10 billion in damages from the government over health problems they blame on exposure to contaminated water at the base through the mid-1980s. The Navy Office of the Judge Advocate General is awaiting results of the health study before acting on the claims.
    The Marines estimate that 500,000 Camp Lejeune residents may have been exposed to the tainted water, including thousands of Vietnam-bound Marines. Federal health investigators estimate the number is higher.
    The U.S. health agency conducting the study, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said its research would be jeopardized if the Navy does not pay $522,000 to keep the study going beyond Sunday. The Navy has balked at paying on the grounds that the health agency did not follow Navy reporting and planning procedures or sufficiently detail its spending, according to a series of testy letters exchanged among officials between December and this month.
    ‘‘We fully understand our responsibility,’’ Richard Mach, a top Navy environmental official, said in an interview Tuesday. He said there may have been misunderstanding in the letters and meetings between the two sides. ‘‘We are not trying to delay this.’’
    U.S. health officials told the Navy they have a different budget system that still provides full accountability under laws governing them.
    Health problems blamed on Camp Lejeune’s contaminated water were the focus of reporting by The Associated Press in June 2007 and congressional oversight hearings. Contacted this week by the AP over the funding dispute, officials from the Navy and the health agency said they expect to overcome their differences to meet Sunday’s payment deadline.
    ‘‘We are fully committed to funding the appropriate studies to get the information we need to answer the questions regarding the groundwater at Camp Lejeune,’’ said Mach, the Navy’s director of environmental compliance and restoration. The Marine Corps and the Navy, which oversees some environmental matters for the Marines, each have funded the study at times.
    The study is investigating cancer and birth defects in babies born to women who were pregnant at Camp Lejeune before the contaminated wells were shut down in the mid-1980s. Health officials also plan additional studies.
    The study so far has concluded that solvents from a dry cleaner next to the base and on-base industrial activity tainted the groundwater for three decades.
    Military officials initially opposed a full study of child illnesses and denied money for three years in the late 1990s, saying it was the dry cleaner’s responsibility.
    The Navy subsequently provided money, but not the full $1.6 million for the current fiscal year. Instead, the Navy has offered just over $1 million. That leaves an additional $522,000 the health agency needs by June 1 to pay the Georgia Institute of Technology to continue sophisticated water modeling.
    Any suspension would put the program as much as a year behind schedule, according to a May 2 letter to Mach from Thomas Sinks, deputy environmental health director at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
    Although the study has been under way since 1997, Mach said the Navy needs more information on the scope, cost and expected results as the project moves along.
    ‘‘We will pay for it but we need this level of supporting information,’’ he said.
    Health officials offered extensive timelines and plans but the Navy in its correspondence deemed it unacceptable, not meeting minimum Navy requirements.
    In a Dec. 7 letter, the Navy said it was concerned about project delays and lack of plans needed for Navy budgeting. Howard Frumkin, the health agency’s director of environmental health, responded that inaccurate and incomplete information from the military has caused delay.

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