When Maryland state officials approved a massive “clean” energy initiative in the heavily polluted community of Curtis Bay in south Baltimore, it should have been cause for celebration. Instead, residents quickly learned that this supposedly-green development was anything but; instead of a wind or solar farm, the state had approved a massive incinerator that would burn 4,000 tons of pollution-generating trash a day, less than one mile away from two public schools. One Curtis Bay senior at a high school near the proposed site, Destiny Watford, decided to take action to stop the proposed plant.

Watford was concerned about environmental studies that showed the proposed plant would emit more mercury than a coal-powered plant directly into the neighborhood where she, her friends, and her family all lived. Though generally a shy person, Watford felt she had to speak out, so she approached a school advisor and co-founded Free Your Voice, a student organization dedicated to community rights and social justice.

Watford organized her fellow students and they took their campaign against the proposed incinerator to the streets. In speaking to residents, they heard heartbreaking stories of how they had been displaced time and time again to make way for hazardous industrial developments like oil refineries, chemical plants, and sewage treatment facilities. Even without the construction of the incinerator, toxic emissions in Baltimore are so bad that the city leads the nation in pollution-related deaths. Instead of becoming discouraged, these conversations inspired Watford and her peers to develop an alternate plan that would empower the community and bring green jobs to the region instead.

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Destiny Watford, Goldman Environmental Prize, activism, incinerators, clean energy, pollution, air pollution, mercury, Baltimore, Maryland, poverty, displacement, poor communities, community organizing

In the course of their research, the students at Free Your Voice learned that Baltimore City Public Schools, along with other local government agencies and nonprofits, had already signed an agreement to purchase power from the incinerator. In May 2014, the students attended a school board meeting and urged officials to divest from the project. By February, the district voted to terminate the contract. Over the course of 2015, Watford and her friends convinced all 22 potential customers to cancel their contracts, putting development of the project on hold indefinitely.

However, Watford’s work was far from done. The developer behind the incinerator, Energy Answers, continued to hold permits for the project until March 2016, when the Maryland Department of Energy declared them invalid. Now she and the community are pushing for the site to be reclaimed and transformed into a truly green space — perhaps a community solar farm or recycling center. While Watford, now age 20, has moved on to college, she still organizes with the Free Your Voice students at her former high school to help them empower their community.

Related: Meet the 6 inspiring winners of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize

Destiny Watford, Goldman Environmental Prize, activism, incinerators, clean energy, pollution, air pollution, mercury, Baltimore, Maryland, poverty, displacement, poor communities, community organizing

For her hard for and dedication, Destiny Watford was awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, one of just six recipients from around the world. Considered the “Nobel Prize for the environment,” the award highlights the work of grassroots leaders who have made significant strides to protect the environment and their local communities. Read Inhabitat’s coverage here to learn about the other five winners.

+ Goldman Environmental Prize