Blackwater withdraws plans for camp in Potrero
Alpine Sun (2008-03-13) Miriam Raftery
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By Miriam Raftery
The Alpine Sun
POTRERO — Blackwater has backed out of its plan to build a private military and law enforcement training camp on an 824-acre former chicken ranch in Potrero, adjacent to national forest and wilderness areas. Formal withdrawal of the project application ends a year-and-a-half long battle between the private military contractor and residents who mobilized widespread opposition to the controversial proposal. Protest rallies against the project drew national and international media attention.
Opponents had argued that the project would cause noise, traffic, groundwater and environmental problems that would adversely affect this small, rural community. Citizens ultimately recalled all five members of the Potrero Planning Group who cast advisory votes favoring the Blackwater project and elected five anti-Blackwater representatives to the board.
The new board had not yet reconsidered that vote when Blackwater withdrew its proposal, which would had been ultimately determined by the County Board of Supervisors.
“I’m still in shock,” said Potrero Planning Group member Jan Hedlun, the lone planner initially opposed to the proposal, which would have included 11 firing ranges, an emergency vehicular training track, bunkhouses and commando-type training facilities. “I haven’t felt this happy since October 2006,” she said, adding, “Hallelujah!”
Blackwater West vice president Brian Bonfiglio advised the county planning department in a letter dated March 7 that Blackwater is withdrawing its application for a major use permit and has decided not to pursue plans for a training camp in Potrero.
“Although our project would have brought a great benefit to San Diego County — providing local, state and federal law enforcement with access to low-cost superior training facilities while bringing much-needed jobs to the area — the proposed site plan simply does not meet our business objectives at this time,” the letter stated.
In an e-mailed response to questions, Bonfiglio revealed that decibel levels were, “in excess of what the county noise ordinance allowed for on the east property line only.”
Blackwater’s withdrawal announcement came just one day after Stop Blackwater organizer Raymond Lutz issued a press release announcing his candidacy for the 77th Assembly District. Lutz is founder of www.stopblackwater.net, a site established originally to oppose Blackwater’s Potrero project.
Bonfiglio has denied that community opposition played any role in the company’s decision to nix the project. But others disagree.
“I think it’s a combination of the EIR/EIS coming up,” said Hedlun, referring the project’s environmental impact report and statement, “as well as the problems they are having because of Iraq, and then the opposition. I think it was everything — a culmination of all factors.”
Congressional hearings into Blackwater’s activities in Iraq have raised allegations that the contractor killed innocent Iraqi civilians without provocation and revealed questions about lack of accountability for private military contractors, among other issues. Blackwater officials assert that they retained tight control of its guards and even fired some 122 guards in Iraq due to improper conduct, according to the Associated Press.
Gordon Hammers, recalled Chair of the Potrero Planning Group, pointed out that the recalled planners had added a contingency to their approval, requiring that the project pass a noise test.
“I think this showed the wisdom and knowledge of the old board,” he said in an e-mail to this publication. “Making Blackwater a political surrogate on President Bush and the war was very destructive to our community and much to do about nothing… The system worked and Blackwater was unsuccessful.”
Newly elected Potrero Planning Group chair Carl Meyer hailed Blackwater’s withdrawal as “great news” in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I think Potrero will start to rejoice tonight,” he added. “We’ll have a party.”
With Blackwater gone from the local scene, Lutz pledged support for Potrero residents and others in East County now battling another perceived threat: The Sunrise Power Link
, SDG&E’s proposed plan for high-voltage power line towers.
“The Alternative Route D will impact many of the same people who would be impacted by the Blackwater West project,” he observed, adding that public comment remains open on that project until mid-April.
Lutz praised efforts by Potrero residents as well as environmental groups, peace organizations, Congressman Bob Filner, journalists who reported the news, and protesters at Blackwater’s other facilities in North Carolina and Illinois who helped draw attention to controversies involving the private military contractor.
“The decision by Blackwater to stay out of Potrero is an impressive victory for our community and shows that grass-roots organizations can still make a huge impact in our world,” Filner said on Tuesday. “I hope that the example set by the Potrero Planning Group, local organizations, vigilant community members and elected officials will encourage other communities to work together to refuse land for dangerous mercenary training facilities.”
A Stop Blackwater online forum soon received e-mails praising local residents for defeating Blackwater, which author Jeremy Scahill has dubbed `the world’s most powerful mercenary army.’
“Great job! It gives us hope here in Illinois. May Blackwater North be next!” wrote Don Kenney with the Clearwater Project to Stop Blackwater in Illinois.
Christian Stalberg, organizer of Blackwater Watch in North Carolina, where Blackwater is headquartered, also sent congratulations.
“You all have worked hard and never gave up and it paid off,” he wrote. “We here in North Carolina still have this mercenary pestilence headquartered in our backyard… Don’t forget those of us here in North Carolina and in Illinois who are still fighting the good fight,” he added, urging local citizens to keep informed at http://blackwaterwatch.net
Asked whether Blackwater has plans to apply elsewhere to open a training facility, Bonfiglio replied, “I don’t have any information to provide you on additional facilities other to say that I’m looking forward to speaking with our company President next week on what the company’s business plans are for what remains our core business for the past 10 years — training.”
Lutz pledged to keep a “close watch” on Blackwater’s next move. “This is a great challenge for our nation, not just Potrero,” he concluded. “We must Stop Blackwater and the blossoming of privatized military of all kinds.”