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Baltimore College Student Wins International Environmental Award for Killing Incinerator

When she was just 17 years old, Destiny Watford decided to take on the entire political establishment in Maryland over a development project proposed near her neighborhood in Baltimore’s Curtis Bay.

A New York-based company called Energy Answers was proposing to build what would be America’s biggest trash-burning incinerator in Fairfield, near the southern tip of the city.  The project would generate electricity by burning pulverized garbage. But it would also add air pollution to a frequently dumped-upon working-class neighborhood already burdened with some of the worst air quality and asthma in the state, not to mention a sewage plant, chemical factories, and coal-piers.

The developers had almost everyone on their side, pushing for the billion-dollar project, including Governor Martin O’Malley, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, four suburban government councils and even the local steelworkers union. 

But the project did not have Destiny on its side.

Destiny Watford and friends at Benjamin Franklin High School formed a student organization called Free Your Voice to fight the incinerator.  And over a period of two years, they held marches and protests; met with all of the local leaders who would listen to them.

In the end, Watford’s coalition succeeded in convincing Baltimore areas governments to cancel their energy-purchase contracts with the developer – which helped to kill the project, at least for now.

On Monday, Watford received an international award for environmental heroism in leading the fight for her neighborhood: the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.

Now a 20-year old student at Towson University, Watford spoke at the  Goldman Prize awards ceremony on Monday night in San Francisco.

“I’m from Baltimore. A place that is on the front lines of many injustices.  From police brutality.  Racial discrimination.  Economic inequality.  And environmental injustice,” Watford said.  “In Baltimore, the number of deaths related to air pollution is higher than the homicide rate.  And 50 percent of the deaths in my community are avoidable.”

When Governor O’Malley was chairman of the Democratic Governors Association in 2010, the Energy Answers developers gave the association $100,000.  The check was dated the same day that O’Malley signed legislation that boosted the incinerator project by classifying trash burning as a clean source of energy, worthy of state subsidies.

During her speech, Watford didn’t go into the details of all this, which was first reported by The Baltimore Sun.   But she did express outrage that the political system had betrayed her neighborhood.

“The fact that legally, in my state, burning trash is considered a renewable energy source to receive public subsidies for climate solutions like wind and solar is a clear sign that our system is failing us and our planet,” Watford said.

In December, Watford and allies organized a march of than 100 protesters in a sit-in at the Maryland Department of the Environment. Seven protesters were arrested.

“We decided that it isn’t the fate of our community or our planet to be a dumping ground,” Watford said.

To help Watford, the group I work for, the Environmental Integrity Project, filed a legal challenge to the project’s permit.  On March 17, the state nullified the permit.

Now, Watford is trying to organize a healthier type of development on the vacant site in Fairfield.

We are now calling on the FMC Corporation, the company that owns the land, to release the 90 acres of land being held by Energy Answers,” Watford said.  “This will make way for community-driven development initiatives, including a community-owned solar farm.”

Now that Watford has won the Goldman prize – which comes with a $175,000 award – she says she is going to keep fighting for a cleaner and healthier Baltimore.  In a city still torn by the unrest over the killing of Freddy Gray a year ago, this is good news: A young leader who refuses to give up hope or surrender her city.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.