Blackwater delivers supplies to wildfire victims in California
Virginian Pilot (2007-10-26) Bill Sizemore
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More Info: Blackwater, Harris Ranch Fire
By BILL SIZEMORE, The Virginian-Pilot
© October 26, 2007 | Last updated 7:35 PM Oct. 26
The California wildfires have come within a quarter-mile of the property where Blackwater wants to build a West Coast training facility, but the company's on-site manager isn't worried. He says the fires won't deter Blackwater from moving ahead with its controversial plans.
Meanwhile, the company is helping deliver food and other supplies to burned-out residents of the rural community. Opponents of the Blackwater West project say they're grateful for the help, but it won't deter them from the fight.
Brian Bonfiglio, project manager for Blackwater West, said Friday the devastating fires haven't touched the site of the proposed project, and he doesn't expect that to happen.
"It's all grazed grassland," he said. "There are no trees or buildings. It won't burn."
Bonfiglio said the Moyock, N.C.-based security company remains on track to build a training center for military and law enforcement personnel on the 800-acre chicken and cattle ranch near Potrero, a hamlet 45 miles east of San Diego near the Mexican border.
The project has drawn vocal opposition from a coalition of rural residents, environmentalists and peace activists. Some have suggested that the proposed facility - which would include firing ranges with live ammunition - would pose an increased fire risk.
Not so, said Bonfiglio: "There will be no explosives training and no tracer ammunition. Lead bullets don't start fires."
On the contrary, he said, the proposed facility would benefit the community if it is threatened by fire again. He said it could be used as a "command center" with bunkhouses for evacuees and water tanks with a 35,000-gallon capacity.
Bonfiglio said Blackwater has made three deliveries of food, water, personal hygiene products and generator fuel to 300 area residents, many of whom have been trapped for days without supplies.
The fires came within 30 feet of Jan Hedlun's back door, flattening a chaparral forest. She said her property looks like a "moonscape."
Hedlun, a leading Blackwater opponent, said she still believes the proposed training facility poses an increased fire risk.
"It didn't take anything to set this one off," she said. "It only took one spark."
Nevertheless, she said, she is grateful for the company's relief efforts.
"We're in survival mode now," she said. "We'll get back to the political arena later."
In other Blackwater-related developments:
n Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who pledged this week to strengthen oversight of Blackwater and other private security providers in Iraq, says she didn't act earlier because she didn't want to "second-guess" State Department personnel on the ground in Iraq.
But newly revealed e-mails show that top officials were warned more than two years ago about repeated incidents of Blackwater guards killing Iraqi civilians.
"Do you think you made a mistake by taking so long to recognize that the oversight of Blackwater was woefully inadequate?" Rep. William Clay, D-Mo., asked Rice during a congressional committee hearing Thursday.
"These are decisions that were made on the ground by people who were reviewing the circumstances and I'm not going to second-guess them here on the spot," Rice replied.
Later Thursday, ABC News revealed State Department e-mails detailing a series of shootings by Blackwater convoys in May and June 2005 in which three Iraqis were killed.
In an e-mail to his superiors in Baghdad, Michael Bishop, a State Department security officer in Al Hillah, warned that failure to address the issue would come back to haunt the United States.
"Not resolving these situations in a quick and decisive manner is counterproductive in regards to accomplishing our foreign policy objectives, ensuring our safety (and)... maintaining the continued good will of the Iraqi people," he wrote.
n Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., called Friday for an expanded investigation into alleged tax evasion by Blackwater.
Earlier in the week, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., alleged that Blackwater has avoided paying millions of dollars in taxes by misclassifying its workers as independent contractors rather than employees.
In a response, Blackwater said it had relied on a ruling by the Small Business Administration. Kerry chairs a Senate committee that oversees the SBA.
In letters to Senate colleagues and Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, Kerry said SBA rulings have no applicability to questions of tax liability.
Bill Sizemore, (757) 446-2276, email@example.com