Blackwater Military Firm Bears Extended Local Backlash
KPBS Full Focus (2007-07-13) Amita Sharma
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The joke around Potrero is if you're on Highway 94 and you blink, you just might miss the town. Potrero is small and there are few trappings of modern life here. Just the essentials. There's the general store. Two cafes. The fire station. A school. A library but not much else. And a lot of people here like Jan Hedlund like it that way.
Hedlund: Potrero is a really nice rural community. It's small. It's around 900 people little less and it's where silence is a noise.
But that could all change if Blackwater USA has its way. The North Carolina-based contractor wants to build a 220-acre training camp for law enforcement and military personnel on this chicken and cattle ranch. The site would have three pistol ranges, eight rifle ranges, four ship simulators, a driving track and a helipad.
Blackwater hopes to enroll 300 students at a time and employ 60 people. The company did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.
Hedlund: The majority of the community doesn't want it here.
Hedlund is a new member of the Potrero Planning Group. Before she took her seat in January, that group voted unanimously in December to support Blackwater's plans even though opponents say more than half of the town's 435 registered voters are against the project.
Hedlund: It's going to affect traffic, noise, groundwater and the environment.
Most of the people in Potrero get their water from wells. Hedlund is afraid that munitions from the training camp will seep into the ground and taint the water.
Hedlund: Pistol ranges and gun ranges have some of the highest toxicity levels after they've left and it takes a great deal of time and money to repair the damage that's been made. Though Blackwater swears they're going to prevent that from occurring, I don't know and I don't think I want to find out 10 years from now how it's going to be.
Hedlund also worries about what kind of effect the noise of rifle fire will have on the eagles, hawks and mountain lions that make their home in the hills of Potrero.
Gordon Hammers: That's all bogus.
That's Gordon Hammers. He heads the Potrero Planning Group, and backs Blackwater's plans.
Hammers: I just want to call your attention to the fact that there are places like Cape Canaveral in Florida where there is an eagle colony right there between the launching pad and the landing strip, plenty of noise, tourists all over the place looking at the eagles. Where were the swallows before they built Capistrano? The animals adapt.
Hammers says Potrero needs Blackwater and the 60 jobs it may bring. He says 45 percent of the town's people live in Twin Lakes Trailer Park.
Hammers: Low-cost housing isn't even the accurate word. The inappropriate housing and I'm talking about people living in trailers illegally, living in campers illegally. Almost a slum situation in many cases.
This community has no economic engine. It does not have an employment base. Money is spent where it is earned or where the people live depending and we don't have any jobs here in Potrero. Even the school teachers come from down the hill.
But Hedlund doesn't see Blackwater as Potrero's savior.
Hedlund: Is Blackwater going to come in and build new homes for us? Is Blackwater going to come in and build a new park for the people who live in these trailers? Nothing is on paper that I can look at and say oh okay perhaps he's right.
Several critics also quietly object to Blackwater's private contractor work in Iraq. That work is under review by a congressional committee. The company first caught attention when four of its workers were killed and burned in Falluja.
Jeremy Scahill: What kind of message does it send to the community when you have a company that has effectively declared itself above any effective laws operating in your community. I mean do you really want a private mercenary army in your backyard?
Jeremy Scahill is author of the book "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army." Despite receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts, Scahill says the company operates in secrecy and has refused to turn over documents to congressional investigators.
So why, you ask, does Blackwater want a foothold in San Diego County?
Scahill: Blackwater is strategically positioning itself where there is a large military force, where they can do training of state, federal and local law enforcement. I think it's interesting to note that it's near the U.S.-Mexico border and we see a privatization agenda within the Department of Homeland Security.
It's against this backdrop that critics of the project say they fear their concerns will be dismissed by county supervisors who will ultimately decide whether Blackwater gets to build its training camp. Opponents say Blackwater has friends in high places.
Hedlund: I feel we have a chance but the cards are laid down against us because Blackwater is a very powerful corporation and had done its groundwork before it even came to the area. It had talked to Duncan Hunter before they got here. They had arranged a meeting with Dianne Jacob.
Potrero is Supervisor Jacob's district. She refused our request for an interview but she did meet with Blackwater representatives a year ago at Congressman Hunter's request. Hunter, who is running for president, received $1,000 from Blackwater's founder Erik Prince. Hunter also declined to be interviewed for this story.
Opponents are mystified about why Hunter would get involved when the land where the project would be built isn't even in his district. Congressman Bob Filner represents that area. And he is looking at legislation that would prevent Blackwater from building the training center.
Filner: It's completely contrary to… this is not a rural zoning thing.
So what's next locally? Blackwater's proposal has several steps to cross before it gets to county supervisors. There's the environmental review. Once that's finished, the county's department of planning and land-use will make a recommendation to the planning commission, which in turn will make a recommendation to the board of supervisors. They are expected to hold public hearings on the matter sometime next summer or fall.
Planning and Land-use chief Glenn Russell says it's crucial the public participate and bristles at suggestions that the Blackwater's plans for Potrero are a on a fast-track to approval.
Glenn: I have heard people say that the department of planning and land-use is greasing the wheels for this project but there is nothing of the sort going on. We are processing this project as we process all projects. It is our desire to always process projects better to do a better job to get this to a decision-maker faster and that is one of the things we are doing. But in no way are we treating this project differently as some kind of special project.
Meanwhile, remember the Potrero Planning Group members that voted unanimously to approve the Blackwater training camp? They are now the target of a recall drive and a lawsuit.
Planning Group Chairman Hammers says there are some people who will always find a reason to complain.
Hammers: Every concern that has been brought to my attention has certainly been addressed.
Hedlund isn't so sure. In any case, she says the Blackwater project has already changed Potrero.
Hedlund: We're a divided community. There's anger. There's frustration. There are accusations, fingerpointing and that hasn't been a part of our community for a long time.