BALTIMORE - A college student from South Baltimore has won a major environmental prize for blocking the construction of a huge trash incinerator in her working class neighborhood. It is a section of the city that is already home to scrap yards, oil tanks and smoke stacks.
Destiny Watford was just 17 years old when she decided to take on the mayor, the governor and the state. As a senior in high school, she saw an injustice and decided to fight.
It is a battle that took her to City Hall, Annapolis and the Maryland Department of the Environment – a place where there were protests and arrests.
Watford’s quest took years, but it ended up in sweet victory.
Watford grew up in a neighborhood located in a small pocket of South Baltimore called Curtis Bay. It is where trucks come to dump, deliver and haul while smoke stacks spew waste into the sky.
It is also a place where people live, and as Watford learned, she seemed resigned to the fact they would have to live in a polluted community.
"When we started learning about the incinerator, we learned that it would have been burning 4,000 tons of trash every day,” Watford said. “It was permitted to release 240 pounds of mercury every single year and 1,000 pounds of lead every year. This was before the Flint crisis had made national news. But we have always known how detrimental lead can be to our health and when we heard about these things, we were outraged that this was happening.”
The project, the nation’s largest trash incinerator, was to be built here. It was not more than a mile from where Watford lived and went to high school.
“So we reached out to the community in trying to see, ‘Hey, maybe the community knows more about this,’” said Watford. “Spoiler – only a handful knew about the project, and almost immediately after we spoke to them about some of the facts of the incinerator or of the project, they were immediately against it.”
There was resistance. Watford said some residents wanted the jobs that came with the project and there were powerful allies.
Chief among them were the mayor and Maryland’s governor.
But it all started to crumble when Watford learned “that the Baltimore public school system would be buying energy from the incinerator and we had this huge, amazing demonstration in front of the Baltimore City school board.”
That is where she said they received a standing ovation from the board, and before long, all of the agencies that had lined up to purchase energy from the project pulled out.
Everything was falling into place, but there was one last fight with the Maryland Department of the Environment. The years long battle would come down to one state agency.
"So I got it through an email, I just read the headline and I screamed,” she recalled. “I was so happy.”
As were many in the Curtis Bay community where Watford’s work paid off.
"Curtis Bay is always thought of as a dumping ground, so they have supported this issue and they united and it was something that we all stood against,” said community activist Rodette Jones.
As for Watford, now a rising college senior student, her work isn't done. She and her group, Free Your Voice, have plans to do more work looking out for human rights.
Watford is one of five people from around the world to win the environmental prize and is the only one from the United States.
The Towson University student said she hopes to use the $175,000 in cash that comes with the award to continue her work in human rights.