One Student's Fight for Clean Air in Baltimore

Goldman Environmental Prize

Four years ago, Baltimore high school senior Destiny Watford was alarmed to learn that a waste-to-energy incinerator would soon be built in her neighborhood. The Fairfield incinerator, which was planned for a 90-acre site less than a mile from the Benjamin Franklin High School that the 17-year-old attended, was set to emit 240 pounds of mercury and 1,000 pounds of lead into the air every year.

Growing up in Baltimore’s heavily industrialized Curtis Bay neighborhood, Watford had seen the dangers that pollution posed for her community. “I know a lot of people with asthma and lung disease,” Watford told The American Prospect. “The deaths related to air pollution in Baltimore City are higher than the homicide rate.” 

Watford swung into action. She cofounded Free Your Voice, a student group that began gathering testimonies and signatures from local residents who did not want to see another industrial project in their neighborhood. First, the students convinced the city’s public schools to pledge not to use energy from the project. Then, they took their case to the Maryland Department of the Environment. The state ultimately reversed plans to build what would have been the nation’s largest waste incinerator.

This week Watford, now 20, received the Goldman Environmental Prize for her activism. She is the third-youngest person to ever receive the prestigious international award. Watford stood out for her leadership role in a community campaign that involved nearly four years of canvassing, petitioning, and pressuring city officials. The relentless pressure paid off and Baltimore officials halted the incinerator project indefinitely last month.

“This was an act of survival,” says Watford, who accepted the award this week. “It was about breaking the cycle of developments coming in and sacrificing our health for their profits.”

Presented to six “grassroots environmental heroes” each year, one for each continent, prize carries an $175,000 award to pursue a “vision of a renewed and protected environment.”

According to a 2013 MIT study, Baltimore has the highest rate of emissions-related deaths of any big American city (more than double the city’s much-hyped murder rate). The city’s residents also suffer disproportionately from lung cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease; asthma-related hospitalization and mortality are more than double the state average. And the Curtis Bay neighborhood, already home to the nation’s largest medical waste incinerator and multiple chemical plants, accounts for nearly 90 percent of the city’s industrial pollution.

If built, the plant could have produced even higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory illness in Curtis Bay, says Rebecca Ruggles, director of the Maryland Environmental Health Network. “The incinerator would have added insult to injury.”

Despite its health risks, city and state officials had touted the project as a green, innovative job creator for the city. At a kickoff event in 2010, then-Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, said that the incinerator project “fits directly into this innovation economy and where we’re going in this fight for a cleaner, greener, more sustainable future with more jobs.”

A year later, O’Malley signed an energy bill designating waste-to-energy incineration as a “Tier 1” resource under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, the same gold standard designation that wind and biomass receive. The bill stipulated that projects like the Fairfield incinerator would be eligible for state energy credits and would count toward Maryland’s renewable energy goals. Within months, nearly two-dozen public entities, including Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS), had signed on to purchase renewable energy from the project.

Step one for Watford and her fellow student activists was to convince those schools not to follow through with plans to rely on Fairfield for energy. “Initially, our goal was getting Baltimore City Public Schools to divest,” says Watford. “We wanted to get all the public institutions out of their contracts.”

As the Free Your Voice student group gained steam, its young activists attended school board meetings and gave board members tours of the proposed Fairfield site. By 2015, the city’s public school system, along with 21 other public entities and nonprofits, had divested from the project.

Following this victory, Watford and her classmates turned their attention to the state. The site’s developer, they learned, had allowed its permit to expire by May of 2015, giving officials at the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) the power to kill it. “Our first act was to reach out to MDE officials,” says Watford. “We sent them letters from doctors and environmental experts, petitions, hundreds of video testimonies.”

Free Your Voice also began proposing alternative uses for the Fairfield site, such as a solar farm or a recycling facility, and called for the site to be developed in an inclusive, equitable way. “An incinerator would only extract wealth from the community,” says Watford. “Whatever does happen with the site should be community controlled.”  

For months, the group’s efforts were met with silence from state officials. But the students continued applying pressure, culminating in a December sit-in at Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles’s Baltimore office. At the sit-in, Watford learned that state environmental officials had given the company until January 2016 to prove its permit was still valid.

After further delays, state environmental officials finally declared the company’s permit invalid in March and suspended the project indefinitely. The decision didn’t completely derail the project—Energy Answers still holds the site’s lease and may fight to continue construction—but the move made an incinerator in Curtis Bay much less likely.  

Ruggles says Free Your Voice’s comprehensive approach, which included targeting stakeholders and investors; identifying alternative uses of the site; and emphasizing the need for fair development approach, helped guide the group to victory. “It definitely makes a big difference in that community to have a sense of self-advocacy,” she says. “They weren’t victims.”

The decision marks a significant break from Curtis Bay’s long history of industrial over-development. “This is a poor community and it’s thought to be a community where you’re not going to get a lot of resistance with a project like this,” says Watford. “But people do care.”

This article has been updated. 

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