Filner pledges to help halt Blackwater USA
By Miriam Raftery,
The East County Californian
Congressman Bob Filner pledged to help block Blackwater USA’s plans to build a private military-style training camp in Potrero.
Concerned citizens of Potrero met with Filner on Monday to ask his help to prevent Blackwater from opening a facility that would include firing ranges, a vehicular training track, ship simulation, and an urban-warfare training center on land surrounded by federally protected National Forest and Bureau of Land Management property.
Citizens also staged a protest rally last Thursday outside a Department of Plannning & Land Use meeting on the project. It attracted more than 120 protesters and widespread coverage on local TV and radio stations.
“I came to Potrero to get away from the city noise, the sprawl, the crime and the commercialism,” said Michael Whalen, who seeks to protect the rural character of Potrero. Whalen and others fault county planners and officials for restricting public input and failing to meet with concerned citizens. “I feel like my voice has not been heard. I’m being ignored.”
Filner sides with Potrero residents
Filner, whose district includes portions of Potrero,voiced support for community members.
“I am with you on this,” Filner told Potrero residents at a meeting that included Potrero residents and representatives from the newly-formed Citizens Against Mercenaries (CAM), the Sierra Club and other organizations.
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) introduced a bill to expand Hauser Wilderness, which adjoins the property. After citizens proposed an allocation to purchase the proposed Blackwater site and add it to the wilderness area, Filner said their idea had merit.
Residents also asked Filner to propose Congressional hearings into facilities opened or proposed by Blackwater in Potrero as well as other communities around the nation.
“That’s what I’m thinking of,” Filner said. “I’ll make a statement about this on the record, and we’ll ask Senator Boxer to try to include this as a wilderness area.”
Residents also asked Filner to consider introducing legislation to block Blackwater from expanding or receiving further federal funds pending outcome of Congressional investigations.
Sierra Club representative Jeanette Hartman added that a proposal will also be made for the Nature Conservancy to consider making an offer on the property.
The property is currently in escrow, Blackwater Vice President Brian Bonfiglio said.
Residents led by Carl Meyer, organizer of the Save Potrero Movement, and Potrero Planning Group member Jan Hedlun delivered a petition signed by 350 of the towns approximately 840 residents to Filner, as well as to the offices of Senators Boxer and Diane Feinstein.
Filner voiced concern over land use issues as well as national security concerns, noting the lack of accountability of private contractors to whom the Bush administration has outsourced key military and security functions. More than 100,000 private contractors’ employees are estimated to be currently in Iraq.
Congressional hearings chaired by Democrat Henry Waxman have revealed evidence of private contractors over-billing the U.S. government, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill. A wrongful death suit against Blackwater filed by family members of its employees and questions over an Iraqi guard reportedly shot by a Blackwater employee have raised further questions about accountability. Blackwater has denied any wrongdoing and filed a countersuit against the attorney representing families of its slain employees, who were hanged off a bridge in Iraq in a notorious incident in 2004.
Residents stage protest
Ilse Meyer sees a troubling parallel.
“I was in Germany under Hitler when World War II ended,” Meyer said outside a Department of Planning and Land Use scoping meeting on Blackwater last Thursday. “I am looking at what the Nazis did. They created special forces outside the government, special police not bound by any rules… Blackwater will train mercenaries and special forces to be outside the confines of the law. They will not be bound by rules and regulations…It’s very frightening to me.”
More than 120 people protested outside the April 5 scoping meeting at the County’s Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU), where security was extremely heavy. Ruffin Road was closed off at the south end, forcing some to park up to half a mile away. A public relations spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department said that “threats” were made and that the high security level was a direct response. An investigation is ongoing, the spokesperson said. Potrero planners and residents who attended the rally said they had not been contacted about the investigation.
Inside the scoping meeting, DPLU planners described details of the Blackwater proposal. Questions were allowed, but will not be part of the public record. Citizens may submit written comments up until 4 p.m. on April 27 regarding what should be included in the environmental impact report on Blackwater’s proposed project.
Potrero Planning Group Chair Gordon Hammers angered many in the community by canceling an April meeting and refusing to convene an alternative date before the April 27 deadline for comments. Hammers has also provoked ire by suggesting in interviews with various media that those opposed to the project are primarily liberals, drug addicts, or unpatriotic.
“I’m a Republican and I’m not a drug dealer,” said Barbara Chamberlain, a Potrero resident at the protest. “I don’t want Blackwater. The noise and the traffic do not fit in with our community. I feel very strongly that our military is responsive to Congress and the public—and Blackwater operates without rules. They are not accountable to anyone.”
“This is not partisan politics,” said Sam Biggers, a Potrero resident who formerly lived in Virginia, 25 miles from Blackwater’s headquarters at Moyock, North Carolina.
His biggest concern is over “the kind of people” Blackwater would bring to town.
“They’re rowdy individuals, ex-Navy Seals, ex-Special forces…crazy people,” he said. “People who like to do that for a living, getting shot and shooting back, ain’t wrapped right.”
Potrero’s Planning Group voted 7-0 in favor of the project in December, contingent on satisfactory results from a live fire noise test which was canceled due to the property owner’s concerns over liability. Asked about prospects for rescheduling the noise test, Bonfiglio said he felt the property owner needed time to cool off. “My mother taught me not to ask her about something when she was mad,” he said.
Bonfiglio, seated in the front of the hearing room, did not identify himself when an audience member asked if anyone from Blackwater was present. Only a former Blackwater employee rose to say he’d served in the Persian Gulf with Blackwater and was “proud” of his service.
All but a handful of the 100 people present inside the hearing room opposed the Blackwater project. Planner Greg Krzys describe the project, which will include 824 acres, including a parcel designated for potential mitigation. Blackwater seeks a zoning change and major use permit to build its military base.
DPLU spokesperson Ivan Holler assured the audience that there would be “opportunities for public comment later on.” However planner Glen Russell told the crowd that it would be 22 to 24 months before an actual hearing would be held at which public testimony would be allowed, eliciting groans from the crowd.
What are Blackwater’s long-range plans?
Blackwater has assured Potrero residents that it has no plans to train foreign mercenaries or base planes, blimps, or armored vehicles at its proposed Blackwater West facility in Potrero. The company has also insisted that the helicopter would be used for emergencies only.
But an interview with journalist Bill Sizemore, who has covered Blackwater extensively for the Virginia Pilot newspaper near the company’s Moyock facility, suggests otherwise.
“I’ve been told by Blackwater people here that they envision Blackwater West as being pretty much a replica of what they have here. I was told that in an interview by Gary Jackson, the company president last spring.” At the 7,000 Moyock facility, Blackwater reportedly maintains the world’s largest private military base and is now building a 6,000 foot runway to move its fleet of over 20 aircraft from Florida to Moyock. “They are going into the airship business and the armored vehicle business, though the heart of the operation here is training.” Sizemore added. “They’re going to want to do the same things there [in Potrero] that they do here.”
Blackwater is now the largest employer and largest taxpayer in Camden County, North Carolina, where the company was largely welcomed by residents because it has provided jobs to 450 local residents, according to Sizemore. “It has had a positive economic impact,” he added, but noted that some close neighbors have complained of noise and increased traffic.
Blackwater opened a new 80-acre facility this week in Illinois, used principally for firearms training. But an Illinois resident who toured Blackwater’s facility has said that the company has grander plans. Sizemore revealed, “What this guy was told by Blackwater is `We’re planning to everything here that we do in North Carolina with the exception of the driving track. We don’t have enough land yet, but we hope to acquire more.’”
-- Raymond Lutz
- 25 Apr 2007