A dispute over a lease extension on Kwajalein Atoll - the site of a major U.S. missile testing range in the middle of the Pacific Ocean - is threatening the financial lifeblood of two island countries.
An agreement expected to be submitted soon for Congressional approval calls for the United States to make annual payments starting at $15 million a year, up from $11.3 million, to the group that owns the atoll, led by a small band of traditional tribal chiefs in the Marshall Islands.
But the landowners say the amount is far too low and complain that they've been shut out of the negotiations, which call for a 63-year lease. They want at least $19.1 million annually.
The lease dispute is but the latest snag in finalizing agreements to provide continued U.S. assistance to the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, both former U.S. trust territories, under a Compact of Free Association first negotiated in 1986.
"There's no rhyme or reason for what they are trying to do," said Tony DeBrum, whose family is one of the landowners, of the negotiators for the three countries. "How do you negotiate without including the people who own the land? There are no public lands in the Marshall Islands."
The talks to extend the compact by another 20 years have been marked by other disputes - even among U.S. agencies - over the inclusion of new provisions to protect the rights of residents from the two nations who are recruited to work in low-paying jobs in the United States.
Though the issues have recently been resolved, the delays have cut the time Congress has to consider and approve the deal. It must act by Sept. 30 to ensure that the aid money is budgeted during the next fiscal year.
A State Department spokesman said the lease agreement was negotiated with authorized representatives of the Marshall Islands government. He said it would be up to the island government to resolve differences with the landowners. He expressed optimism that an agreement would be reached. Marshall Islands government officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Without the continued aid, all parties agree, the two countries would likely shut down. In 1998, the most recent year for which complete figures are available, U.S. aid accounted for 54 percent of government revenue in Micronesia and 68 percent in the Marshall Islands.
Among those affected would be many former occupants of the atoll who did not own land. Most of them live in squalor after being forced to relocate some four decades ago because of the missiles tests to the tiny island of Ebeye. In recent testimony before a congressional committee, witnesses described "dilapidated, overcrowded housing conditions and the horrific condition of the water, sanitation, health and education facilities" on Ebeye.
The new anti-ballistic missile system the Bush administration hopes to bring on line next year is being tested at the atoll, the home of the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. The Defense Department says the site "serves a vital role in research, development, test and evaluation for America's ... defense and space programs."
Missiles are launched from Vandenberg Air Force base in California and other locations aimed at Kwajalein, where other missiles are launched in an attempt to intercept them. The missiles not intercepted fall harmlessly into the world's largest lagoon, according to Defense officials.
Payment records provided by the landowners show that the current $11.3 million in annual payments is divided among about 90 landowners, but a handful of those owners get nearly a third of the total.
The family of former Marshall Islands President Imata Kabua gets 17.6 percent of the payments, while the family of Anjua Loeak, one of 12 members of the Iroij, the traditional tribal leaders in the Marshall Islands, gets 11.3 percent.
A third member of the Iroij, Neimata Nakamura, gets 4.2 percent and the combined total for the three Iroij members is a little over 33 percent.
The records show that Philomena Muller, the mother of Bobby Muller, the lead negotiator for the Marshall Islands in the compact negotiations, also is a Kwajalein landowner, although her share of the payments is less than 1 percent.
If the annual payment were to be boosted to $19.1 million, the estimated annual allotment to the Kabua family would be $3.3 million, while the Loeak family allotment would be more than $2.1 million.
DeBrum said that the 11-page payment distribution list does not represent the final allotment of all funds from the lease. Once checks are distributed through the Marshall Islands government to those on the list, they then redistribute some of the payments to other family members, boosting the total number of beneficiaries into the thousands.
He said those further distributions are not required under Marshall Islands law, but are done voluntarily by tradition.
In addition to the payment issue, the landowners contend the rental provisions as now proposed give unfair advantage to the U.S. government. For instance, the United States can cancel the lease at anytime with seven years' notice.
Besides boosting the annual rent to $15 million as of Oct. 1, the proposal would automatically boost the rent to $18 million in 2014.
Without the extension, the current lease agreement for the test range will expire in 2016.
Marnie Funk, a spokeswoman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the panel would act as expeditiously as possible but noted the administration has yet to submit a written proposal.
"We haven't seen it yet," she said.
DeBrum and other landowners say that if Congress and the Marshall Islands legislature approve the agreement in its current form, they will block the extension of the agreement by refusing to sign a land use agreement needed to implement it.
"A new land-use agreement," DeBrum said, "is not on the horizon."