This Baltimore 20-Year-Old Stopped an Incinerator and Became an International Hero

“Baltimore holds a special place in American history.
But it’s really a tale of two cities.
Baltimore and to the south, Curtis Bay.”
-Goldman Environmental Prize

Curtis Bay is home to a medical-waste incinerator, a coal pier, and an array of chemical plants. But it’s also home to Destiny Watford.

Destiny was 17 when she saw a local play that shone a light on the concept of pollution. It rang true to her experience, a story was playing out in her own neighborhood. In a full classroom one day, she asked how many people had asthma. Every single hand went up. She knew things had to change. That’s when this “shy girl” gathered up her courage, rallied her friends together and co-founded Free Your Voice, a student organization dedicated to community rights and social justice.

It was right around that time—in 2012—that a corporation called Energy Answers International proposed to build the nation’s largest incinerator in Curtis Bay. Destiny and her friends at Free Your Voice were shocked to discover that the site was less than a mile from their high school. Although the company promoted its plan as “clean waste-to-energy,” the company is actually in the dirty business of burning trash. The trash-burning incinerator proposed for Curtis Bay would have been permitted to emit up to 240 pounds of mercury and 1,000 pounds of lead every year — in a city with the nation’s highest rate of air pollution related deaths. (Studies have shown that burning trash emits even more climate pollution than burning coal, per unit of energy.)

So Destiny and her fellow students took to the streets. They went door-to-door, organizing protests, and sharing petitions. Yet the more Destiny talked to friends and neighbors, the more she heard them relate the same story over and over again. The stories of asthma, of cancer, of displacement. “According to the Baltimore City Health Department, 50% of deaths in my community are avoidable. The number of deaths related to air pollution in Curtis Bay is higher than the homicide rate,” she related. Curtis Bay, home to primarily people of color, was a toxic dumping ground. Recalling it later, she said it was “systematic injustice”—and stopping it was “a matter of survival.”

In Destiny’s words: “The very idea of the plan to build the incinerator…AND the fact that legally, in my state, burning trash is considered a ‘renewable energy source’ to receive [the same] public subsidies [as] wind and solar, is a clear sign that our system is failing us and our planet.

That was when Destiny and Free Your Voice decided that they were going to fundamentally rewrite their community’s story. Together they set out not only to stop the incinerator, but also to bring real clean energy, good jobs and a whole new healthy way of life to her hometown. As Destiny put it: “This could be the site of the nation’s largest incinerator, or it could be the site of the largest solar farm on the Eastern seaboard.”

But how? Destiny and Free your Voice dug deep into every document available…looking for a winning strategy. Then they made a stunning discovery: that their own school was poised to become an energy customer of this mega-polluter. Baltimore City Public Schools, along with other city government agencies and local nonprofits, had signed an agreement to purchase energy from the incinerator. It was time to Shut. It. All. Down.

At a May 2014 school board meeting—Free Your Voice turned out a huge group of student and community members—complete with art, poetry, and powerful, informed testimony—urging the board to divest from the project. And it worked. By the fall of that year, not only the school district, but all 22 customers canceled their contracts, leaving the incinerator with no market for its product. The tide was turning.

Destiny and Free Your Voice knew they needed to turn up the pressure so they changed tactics: channeling the power of intense public pressure toward the government agencies with jurisdiction and demanding that they pull the project’s permits. And this is what finally did it. In March 2016, the Maryland Department of the Environment declared the incinerator’s permit invalid.

This was not a quiet victory. Destiny had brought the eyes of the world to her corner of Baltimore. Just two months after the incinerator victory, Destiny was honored with one the highest environmental honors in the world: the Goldman Environmental Prize.

This is what she said when she won:

But there’s still work to do. In the United States, some climate policies like the Clean Power Plan unbelievably classify trash-burning as renewable energy!  In doing so, they allow trash burning companies like Energy Answers to qualify for climate subsidies, which are really meant for clean energy like wind and solar power. These subsidies present an enormous challenge to communities like Curtis Bay, and keep polluting facilities alive all over the country. And incinerators actually compete with real zero waste initiatives like reducing and reusing our Stuff, composting, and recycling.

So here is where YOU enter this amazing story. Flex your citizen muscle and stand with Destiny and Free Your Voice to demand:

1) that burning trash can never be counted by the EPA, the State of Maryland or any other governmental body as a “clean climate solution;” and
2) that the incinerator company (now with no permit to develop), release the property to the community for true clean energy alternatives such as a community solar farm—and a zero waste sorting center.

Learn more:

This story is drawn from the following sources: Goldman Environmental Prize; Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Grist; and The Washington Post.

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