Blackwater's San Diego-Area Plan Spurs Protest Blackwater USA wants to build a 200-acre training facility in San Diego's backcountry, but growing controversy over the private security contractors' operations in Iraq might hurt the project's prospects for approval. Bitter divisions are emerging in the small community of Potrero.
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Blackwater's San Diego-Area Plan Spurs Protest

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Blackwater's San Diego-Area Plan Spurs Protest

Blackwater's San Diego-Area Plan Spurs Protest

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Another Blackwater controversy is brewing in the countryside outside San Diego. The security firm wants to build a new state-of-the-art training facility there in a small town that has a lot to gain financially.

As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, some opponents are trying to make sure that that never happens.

CARRIE KAHN: When you think San Diego, you usually don't think rural living. But drive 45 miles east down a winding road and you're in backcountry - isolated and until recently, very quiet.


U: Stop Blackwater. Stop Blackwater. Stop Blackwater.

KAHN: Residents of the town of Potrero came out recently to protest Blackwater's plan to build the training facility on a chicken and cattle ranch. They found allies in San Diego's anti-war community and are gaining momentum since Blackwater's recent problems in Iraq have hit the headlines.

SIEGEL: Blackwater is a black mark on American democracy.

KAHN: Potrero sits in the district of Democratic Congressman Bob Filner.

SIEGEL: We can't let them blackmail us into this so they can blackmail democracy further. And what they are doing is playing blackjack with the environment. We can't afford that gamble. We're going to stop them. Thank you so much.

KAHN: Filner has introduced legislation that says training of federal contractors would be done only on federal property.

Wearing a bright green t-shirt with "Stop Blackwater" on the front, San Diego librarian Diane Marr(ph) says the company has no business here or in the Middle East.

M: They're not doing us any favors in Iraq. They're causing the people of Iraq to really hate us because they're just basically Wild West. They're just killing.

KAHN: And there are those who worry about the company upsetting this rural community.

M: We love the way Potrero is. And Blackwater has no place down here. It's peaceful, quiet, beautiful, and they are not.

KAHN: Tina Brown(ph) lives near where Blackwater has proposed building classroom facilities, firing ranges, ship simulators and a helipad.

M: We have great fire danger out here. We have very little water out here. You can hear gunshots from miles away. And we don't need those problems.

KAHN: Blackwater spokesman Brian Bonfiglio says the company picked Potrero for its rural attributes, especially the 600-foot tall cliffs, which he says will muffle noise from the facility.

M: Anything, really, perfect location. Not much unlike our North Carolina facility. One we're leaning in, little rural community. And we are wonderful neighbors back in North Carolina and we're going to be wonderful neighbors here. There's no doubt about it.

KAHN: And there are residents who say Potrero needs Blackwater. From the day of the protest, several dozen gathered across the street in support of the private security firm.

M: Oh, I'm for progress. And I - we're very military family.

KAHN: Chris Levelier says she came to Potrero as a young bride and has since seen little development.

M: I think those two improvements in 52 years, we have a new library, we have two more miles of road, paved road toward our ranch.

KAHN: She's hoping her son-in-law could get one of the 60 promised jobs at the training facility so he wouldn't have to travel so far for work.

But Blackwater has a long road ahead before it gets permission to build in California. Blackwater expert Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution says at this stage, demonstrators should focus their protest at the U.S. government, which made the decision to outsource military security functions to Blackwater.

M: You know, if people have a problem with that company's existence, it's not just merely the company they should be focusing on but the policies that allow it to carry out that.

KAHN: But for now, residents in Potrero have set their sights on the company.


U: Goodbye, Blackwater. Goodbye, Blackwater.

KAHN: At the gates of the proposed site, protesters shouted down Blackwater's spokesman who jumped into his white Hummer and drove away through the crowd.

U: Why does he hide in the Hummer? Don't you care about...

KAHN: The fight against California training facility will be a long one. The San Diego County supervisors won't vote on the project until probably until December of 2008.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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