It started with an idea about farmland, climate change and a thousand tons of rocks.
Kevin Blacker sits in his red Ford F-350, its truck bed dusted with clumps of hay from his latest job, looking out over the massive construction area that is the State Pier in New London, a project site that has turned this farmer into an activist.
The State Pier is being redeveloped as a staging area for Connecticut’s offshore wind turbine farm known as Revolution Wind, which, under the original terms, will be owned and operated jointly by Danish company Ørsted and Connecticut electricity giant Eversource. Eversource recently announced they will be selling their stake in the wind farm.
The State Pier project has the full backing of Democrat leadership from Gov. Ned Lamont all the way to President Joe Biden’s administration as they look to transition the United States to more wind and solar-based electricity generation to replace fossil fuels.
Just a few months ago, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm joined a full roster of public officials and labor leaders at the site to tout the project, as Connecticut and several other states work to transition to an electric grid with “net-zero” carbon emissions. It’s one of several wind farms being developed off the Northeast Coast in Massachusetts and New York.
But the State Pier project in Connecticut has had its share of trouble, too, as the confluence of government working hand in hand with corporations has led to some very public instances of grift, contracting violations and an escalating price tag shouldered by taxpayers.
With those scandals has come some public outcry as the project excluded the longshoremen’s union from off-loading ships for the State Pier project and kicked out a road salt distributor that had previously used the pier for shipping and distributing.
But perhaps no one has caused local, state and federal officials or corporate executives a bigger headache than Kevin Blacker, whose relentless campaign against the State Pier project has earned him two arrests, some praise and much, much more ire from those holding the reins of power.
Blacker certainly isn’t the first Connecticut citizen to mount a campaign against policy proposals and projects pushed by the powers that be.
In 2018, Patrick Sasser, a firefighter who also owned a small trucking business, rose to prominence fighting Gov. Ned Lamont’s plan to place tolls on Connecticut’s highways. His No Tolls CT movement drew headlines and public support through lawn signs, bumper stickers and regular media appearances ultimately culminating with tolls becoming too much of a political hot-potato that the governor and legislature finally put it to bed.
Before him, Susette Kelo and her Little Pink House story about a corporate takeover of land through the Connecticut government’s use of eminent domain garnered a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court, a book and even an award-winning film. And while Kelo wasn’t successful at the Supreme Court, her story did change eminent domain laws in other states and remains a symbol of government overreach at the hands of corporate giants.
But what would lead a 36-year-old with a degree in soil science from the University of New Hampshire to so vigorously oppose a project that, aside from the political and ethical issues that draw the attention of news junkies, doesn’t register much interest from the public?
As indicated before, his story starts with farmland, a thousand tons of rocks and an idea to help mitigate the effects of rising sea levels for coastal properties.
Blacker grew up in Noank, Connecticut. His father owned a landscaping company. Blacker grew up working with his father, and continued to work for him when he returned from college. But while at school, Blacker became interested in farming. Currently he is in production farming, cutting and selling hay in Ledyard, renting farmland in towns like North Stonington, to cultivate the land.
But there wasn’t much money in renting farmland and both Blacker and his father became interested in buying their own property but were unsuccessful.
“I wasn’t making enough money for the amount of work I was putting into farming. It’s really, really hard work and I could see that I wasn’t ever going to be able to buy a piece of land mowing lawns or farming. I had to find another way to make money,” Blacker said in an interview.
“Renting land was not where it was at. It was a cycle. You rent a piece of land, you make all these improvements, everything in farming requires long-term capital improvements. You have to build fence, fix barns, fix roads,” Blacker said. “I kept cows for ten years on rented land and you build miles of barbed wire fence, which is just ridiculously hard work and then you lose the piece of land. Somebody dies, something changes, you make it too nice and suddenly they want it back and I kept getting burned, and it was really clear that I needed to get a piece of land that I really owned.”
So, in 2017, just as the State Pier project was first making its way through Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration as a potential hub for offshore wind, Blacker was getting started on a business idea.
“Mowing lawns, putting in hay, it’s just plain hard, physical work,” Blacker said. “I can look ahead to my dad who’s thirty years ahead of me and he’s hobbling around and all worn out and I know I need to think of something that’s not physical.”
Cultivating farmland for crops meant removing massive amounts of rocks and boulders from the soil, and Blacker, in consultation with his brother, saw an opportunity in turning this often worthless byproduct of farming into a business opportunity to protect coastal properties.
“All these houses we work on in Noank are on the ocean and all of them have rocks protecting them,” Blacker said. “There’s value in these rocks. They say sea level is going to rise more, but I wanted to set up a way for farmers to sell these rocks.”
According to Blacker, the true value in the hay trade is not in the hay itself but in transporting and moving it efficiently. He saw a similar opportunity in rocks. “There’s money in them, but most of the money goes away if you don’t handle them efficiently.”
But to get rocks to places like Block Island, Fishers Island and coastal Connecticut would require access to a nearby port and the State Pier was practically in his backyard. He began attending meetings of the Connecticut Port Authority to understand the pier and meet the people in charge of it, and that’s when he began to really pay attention.
“I set out with my initial intention of selling rocks, but then I was at these meetings and started seeing that something was wrong,” Blacker said. “I started picking at it, digging, and the more I dug, the more I could see that there was something really wrong.”
When Blacker says there was something wrong at the Port Authority, he wasn’t off the mark.
In 2019, there emerged reports from the media and state auditors that the quasi-public Connecticut Port Authority was spending excessively on travel and dining, lacked basic oversight controls and that CPA Chairwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder paid her daughter thousands for photographs hung in her office.
The reports came courtesy of several whistle-blower complaints and the timing couldn’t have been worse for the Lamont administration as it embarked on the State Pier project with Eversource and Orsted.
Lamont was looking to clear away any hint of scandal or impropriety from the CPA as the State Pier project was looking to get started. Reemsynder submitted her resignation as did Deputy Secretary of State Scott Bates, who approved the purchase; the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee held informational hearings on the port authority’s excessive spending and lack of controls. The CPA’s executive director at the time, Evan Matthews, who was facing health issues, was placed on administrative leave and eventually resigned.
Those highly public problems at the CPA, however, were merely the most public manifestations of what Blacker saw as a lack of accountability at the Authority.
He recounts a statutorily required board meeting he attended where there wasn’t a quorum to hear public comment and Bates said the statute was “just a technicality” and said the meeting wasn’t necessary.
“I’d read the law and the Port Authority was required to hold this hearing,” Blacker said. When Blacker stood up and requested to speak before the entire board as required, he was casually dismissed. “You can’t just let the government break the law.”
“I initially got into it for the rocks, but I stayed in it for the fight,” Blacker said.
And Blacker has fought, sometimes landing him in handcuffs or, at least, in a room with police officers. Blacker’s enthusiasm, emails and sometimes over-the-top comments sometimes worked against him as he tried to draw attention to his cause.
In 2019, the Transportation Committee held a forum on the State Pier project. Several days before the meeting, Blacker sent out an email blast calling Gov. Lamont a “wimp” and the hearings a “farce.”
It was fairly par for the course for the State Pier project’s most outspoken opponent who often employed such rhetoric, but upon arriving he was detained by police who tried to get him to leave the Capitol and go to the police station to give a statement. The police believed his email was threatening, according to Blacker. He refused to leave and sat in on the hearing anyway.
“Lamont’s staff literally unleashed police with the state’s major crime squad to intimidate and shut up Blacker, using Connecticut’s esteemed police like a third world dictator might, sending goons after dissidents,” New London Day opinion writer David Collins wrote.
Indeed, Blacker’s activism has certainly shined a light on scandals at the CPA, but has also occasionally veered into turbulent waters.
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Writing that Blacker was a “very nice and well-meaning man,” Chief Editor and Founder of CT Examiner Gregory Stroud also noted the hundreds of emails he has received from Blacker that “have nevertheless grown more profane, and more frequent – sometimes six a day – and on occasion feature violent imagery and fears.”
Nevertheless, Stroud wrote “It was Blacker whose dogged activism has spurred many of us in the press to take a closer look at the port authority.”
Blacker was first arrested in February of 2020 during a Port Authority meeting. He had indicated ahead of time that he would be attending and would engage in “civil disobedience” to disrupt the meeting in protest the Harbor Development Agreement between the CPA, Gateway New London and Eversource/Ørsted that essentially removed any other companies that used the pier and torpedoed Blacker’s hopes of using the pier to create his business.
A brief video of the meeting shows Blacker speaking calmly but not stopping as board members try to ignore him and carry on with the meeting. He was eventually arrested, but the charges were dismissed after a couple court appearances.
He was arrested again in 2020 for painting road signs to the State Pier “Temptation Pink,” in honor of the Little Pink House.
“As the price continued to escalate and more and more information came out about how dishonest the process had been and there was a total lack of action from any leader and a total lack of accountability, I decided that I was going to take action,” Blacker said.
“Number one, it would draw attention to what was occurring here, I wanted people to think about the connection between the pink house deal – which was really rotten and unfair and all done to benefit a private company – but it was also the most aggressive thing I could think of,” Blacker said, adding that he immediately publicized what he’d done.
That move earned him an arrest by the State Police major crimes unit as CPA Board Chairman David Kooris said the damage to the signs was in excess of $1,500 and therefore a felony. It wasn’t — the actual damages were in the hundreds — and the felony case was dropped for a lesser charge, but not before Blacker’s mugshot was posted in newspapers.
Blacker represented himself in the case, refused to pay the inflated costs and is still awaiting a misdemeanor trial before a judge.
Blacker had another near miss with law in 2022 after the State Contracting and Standards Board found that the CPA did not have the statutory authority to enter into a public-private partnership, along with several other problems, such as a finder’s fee paid to Seabury Capital who counted a recent CPA board member as one of their managing directors. “Again, nobody would do anything, nobody would take any action. I decided I’ll take some action,” Blacker said.
He donned a reflective vest, hopped the fence at the State Pier, stood in front of the dump trucks, bulldozers and payloaders and refused to move. “For probably an hour, hour and a half, it brought the work to a halt. It served the purpose of drawing attention. Everything I’ve done is for the purpose of drawing attention.”
“That’s what it’s taking; it takes action and sacrifice and determination to stop something that’s not right,” Blacker said.
But with attention comes derision, scorn and dislike, particularly when one pits themselves against a political machine with hundreds of millions, if not billions on the line. It can get to you.
“I’ve put so much time and effort into this, of course it affects me. I think about it a lot,” Blacker said, adding that “plenty” of his friends and family say he should just give up.
“Not my dad,” Blacker says, “he never told me to give up, he trusts me. And the ones who really, really know me and trust me, they know that if I see something and I’m committed to it, there’s something there.”
“Of course, when people judge you and dislike you, you feel it,” Blacker said. “But I believe when something is right and you know you’re right, you ignore those uncomfortable feelings, and you keep on going. Anyone who has accomplished anything that’s really great has to deal with being judged.”
“But I don’t lose sleep over the fact that some people think I’m cracked,” Blacker said. “What drives me mad is things that are inefficient, wasteful, dishonest, and just wrong. That keeps me up at night.”
But Blacker also adds that his activism has put him in touch with people he now considers allies in his fight against the State Pier project.
In essence, people know his name: politicians, bureaucrats and news media recognize him whether they like him or not and maybe one day that will help him.
“I see raw opportunity in the fight,” Blacker said.
Looking out over the work going on at the State Pier, it’s easy to see why some people think Blacker is “cracked.”
The dump trucks alone going up and down the street and onto the port are probably too numerous to count. There are cranes everywhere. The whole place looks like it’s moving, and the offshore wind project is set to launch in 2023 with the political backing of the federal government.
Quite simply, it looks as if Blacker is fighting a losing battle. The State Pier project looks like a done deal.
But Kevin Blacker insists that it’s not. “The mentality I’m going at this with is that it’s not a done deal,” Blacker said.
“It’s happening,” Blacker said. “But just because something happens doesn’t mean it can’t be undone. And if you break the law, and they were dishonest and they lied and they violated anti-trust laws, there’s triple damages.”
The State Pier project has certainly met with some degree of scrutiny and scandal, and those scandals are ongoing. Aside from the resignations, lack of fiscal oversight and the SCSB report, the Office of State Ethics recently fined Seabury Capital $10,000 for giving gifts to CPA board members, including former executive director Evan Matthews, leading up to the contract award.
Last, but not least, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating former Office of Policy and Management Deputy Secretary Kosta Diamantis who was tasked with overseeing financial matters at the Port Authority on behalf of OPM.
Diamantis was the subject of a hiring scandal involving Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo, as well as improper contracting actions related to school construction at several municipalities in Connecticut, although the FBI has subpoenaed contracting records for the State Pier, as well.
But none that has slowed down progress at the State Pier. Nor has price tag, which has grown from $93 million to $255 million. Officials said the latest price increase would be the last.
But, sitting in his truck overlooking the massive worksite, Blacker maintains his belief in the American system of government, adhering to the letter of the law and accountability.
“They have the money. Somebody could make them fix it. Whether it would be put back to exactly what it was, I don’t know. But it can be fixed,” Blacker said. “This is America, and there’s accountability.”