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.