Although the US trade deficit narrowed slightly in June, the trade gap through the first six months of 2006 totaled $383.9 billion, compared with $340.2 billion at the same point last year, the Commerce Department said Thursday. In June, near-record petroleum imports prevented any significant progress in shrinking the deficit.

The Veterans Affairs Department said it will begin sending letters to millions of veterans and troops on active duty about how those whose personal information was lost last May on a stolen laptop computer can receive protection against potential identity theft. The VA says there is no evidence that data have been used illegally, but a "breach analysis" will provide "additional assurances" that personal records remain uncompromised.

A spokesman for BP, the energy giant that has had to shut down the nation's largest oil field, said the company will "spare no expense" in replacing 16 miles of aging pipeline on Alaska's North Slope. BP is pressing steel pipe manufacturers for deliveries in September, but government energy officials say repairs will probably take months, curtailing Prudhoe Bay oil production into next year.

Federal officials said stepped-up testing of thousands more migratory birds will be conducted in the coming months, aimed at detecting a strain of avian flu that is considered deadly. Federal agencies, states, and universities will join in the preventive effort.

Inadequate federal oversight of bus companies may have been a contributing factor in last September's fire in Texas that killed 23 nursing home residents, testimony revealed during a National Transportation Safety Board hearing in Washington. An overheated bearing in the rear wheel well of a chartered bus is believed to have caused the accident. But Global Limo Inc. of Pharr, Texas, went 24 years before its first federal safety review in 2004. Last year, 17,000 of 32,000 motor coaches were inspected by federal or state regulators.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) of New York toured a construction site 550 feet below the streets of Manhattan Wednesday to mark the end to excavation on an 8-1/2-mile water tunnel that is part of the largest infrastructure project in city history. The tunnel, which will join two aging structures in delivering water from upstate reservoirs, has been in process for 36 years and is expected to be completed in 2012.

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