Security contractor Blackwater ends bid for Calif. training site
San Francisco Chronicle (2008-03-07) Allison Hoffman
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More Info: Blackwater, Blackwater West
By ALLISON HOFFMAN, Associated Press Writer
Friday, March 7, 2008
(03-07) 16:18 PST SAN DIEGO, (AP) --
Military security contractor Blackwater Worldwide has pulled its plans to build a training facility in a remote area about 45 miles east of San Diego.
Company project manager Brian Bonfiglio said in a letter submitted Friday to the San Diego County planning department that the site near the small community of Potrero no longer meets Blackwater's business needs.
"After examining the capacity of our existing facilities and our business development goals, we have decided not to pursue plans for a training campus in Potrero," Bonfiglio wrote.
The company had planned to convert a former chicken ranch into a camp that would host weeklong training courses for law enforcement and military personnel. The initial proposal for Blackwater West included 11 firing ranges, a driving track and a helipad in a valley tucked into rocky desert mountains.
Tiny Potrero, home to about 850 people, found itself split by the plan, with environmentalist and anti-war factions ardently opposing those who welcomed the prospect of an economic boost for the area. In December, voters recalled five members of a local planning board who supported the project.
"I feel giddy," said Jan Hedlun, a planning group member who led local opposition to the project. She said word was spreading fast as opponents celebrated by faxing around copies of Bonfiglio's letter, which was posted online Friday by The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Bonfiglio said the repeated marches and protests had nothing to do with the company's withdrawal. Recent noise tests indicated that sound levels in the bowl-shaped valley exceeded the county limits and would have been prohibitively expensive to fix.
"The decision was ultimately made yesterday based on the fact that there was no feasible mitigation with regard to our noise tests," Bonfiglio told The Associated Press on Friday. "You'd basically have to put roofs on every single range. It's not workable."
Bonfiglio said he did not know whether Blackwater, based in Moyock, N.C., planned to explore other sites in the West for additional training camps.
The company had said the Potrero camp would be an ideal complement to its headquarters in Moyock, and a satellite training center in Mount Carroll, Ill., about 150 miles west of Chicago. The site is a short drive from San Diego and its array of military bases and federal law-enforcement field offices — including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol.
"The need is still there," Bonfiglio said.
He said the company did not abandon the Potrero project, which he estimated had already cost more than $1 million in consultants' fees, because it is struggling financially.
The company had come under congressional scrutiny after the shootings of 17 civilians in Baghdad by contract guards in September. FBI investigators and Justice Department attorneys were in Iraq at the end of February to re-examine evidence from the Sept. 16 shooting and determine whether charges might be brought in U.S. courts.