Just before winning the Goldman Environmental Prize in April, we spoke to student activist Destiny Watford to learn how – together with student group Free Your Voice – she united her community to stop the nation’s largest incinerator from breaking ground near her high school in Curtis Bay, Baltimore.
Building on her victory that has ended the plans by the project developer, Energy Answers, she tells us about what the future holds for her campaign and the incinerator site.
Were you born in Curtis Bay? Can you describe your experience growing up there?
I mostly grew up in Curtis Bay, where my grandma lived. Growing up here was – if you can get past the horrible smell from the industry – a decent place to live! I went to Curtis Bay elementary and had amazing experiences and because of the campaign, I’ve been more connected to Curtis Bay. It’s really interesting how much things have changed. Curtis Bay is becoming a more tight-knit community. It’s a small community that has a lot of potential even though it’s been treated as a dumping ground for a long time.
I grew up with industry and asked questions but I learned to ignore it as it was part of my life. There were a lot of communities near Curtis Bay that aren’t communities anymore because of industry.
Do you think a lot of people learned to ignore it?
I think that happens often when you have to live with it every day. You almost forget that it’s there. You know it’s present; you can see it, smell it, hear it, but it’s something you learn to live with.
Talk us through the time you first discovered the negative impacts of the waste incinerator that Energy Answers would bring. What was the initial spark that drove you to fight back?
When we first heard about the incinerator we were a little confused because the project had been going on for four years. Because of the economy, Energy Answers kept missing deadlines to construct because they couldn’t afford it. We were shocked because we didn’t know the project was going on. No one was really talking about the health impacts so we decided to do some research because a lot of us – including myself – didn’t even know what an incinerator was.
We didn’t really question where our trash goes so we spent a lot of time researching incineration and its consequences to our health. We found out that it would be creating a lot of pollution and that Curtis Bay already had some of the worst pollution in the nation. To put that incinerator in a place that already had so much air pollution was a violation of our basic human rights. That triggered it – the fact that we didn’t know anything about the incinerator despite the fact that it would be in our community and that our Maryland governor supported the project. Energy Answers’ spokespeople said the community was completely ok with it – including those we canvassed – but those people didn’t even know that the incinerator existed! We thought this is not ok, this is not how development should work. We should have a meaningful role in decisions that would affect us and our loved ones who live here. We decided to do something about it.
Do you know how Energy Answers was able to move this project forward for so long?
There was a law passed that made Energy Answers’ incinerator tier one energy, which is the same level as solar or wind, basically ‘clean energy.’ I don’t know that it was a coincidence that tens of thousands of dollars were donated to the Democratic Governors Association on the same day that then-Governor O’Malley said Energy Answers is a great thing for Maryland and Baltimore. Our mayor, Stephanie Rawlings Blake supported the project and our congressman was under the notion that people from his districts were in favor of the incinerator.
How did you learn about Free Your Voice?
I joined Free Your Voice after we saw a play called ‘Enemy of the People’ which is about a community living near a hot spring. This spring is both bringing wealth to the community and health impacts as it’s found to be toxic. This play was organized as a field trip by Free Your Voice – and that was when I learned that something similar was going on in our community. The week after I became a member.
How are community members supporting your cause?
We spent a lot of time canvassing and talking about the issue and building relationships with community members. They’ve been spreading the word about the incinerator campaign, making video testimonials to send to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) talking about how they are affected by the incinerator and the consequences to their health, and then shared them on social media. Over 2,000 residents reached out to MDE this way — it’s harder for them to say no to a face! A lot of the participation in the campaign comes from relationship-building with our neighbors and community members – which prepares us so that when something like the incinerator comes along, we’re able to unify together and have a say in the decision.
How did you get your school board to divest from the incinerator?
We found out through research that the Baltimore Public School system and 22 entities would be buying energy from the incinerator. We reached out to these entities to tell them that their support of the incinerator was not ok. We did a huge presentation to the Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) board [Destiny’s high school, Benjamin Franklin, is part of the BCPS system], which was filmed with students, teachers and parents from across the city. It had a soliloquy and a song about incineration and what it was like growing up in a place like Curtis Bay. We finally decided to do something about it and I wrote speech to give to the school board.
Giving that presentation to the Public School Board was a huge turning point in our campaign. Because of the pressure from our network of allies we caught the attention of the Baltimore City government. Even though our mayor initially supported the incinerator, she admitted it wasn’t a good idea and withdrew her support from Baltimore City. We got all 22 entities to back out of their contract with Energy Answers, which was huge.
What’s next for Free Your Voice and the incinerator site?
We’ve stopped construction by getting the incinerator customers to back out of their contracts, and are continuing to ask that the company pledge to use the site for sustainable alternatives.
The communities in and around Curtis Bay shared similar fates when people were pushed out of their communities because of industry and pollution. We learned from history that this has happened for decades so it’s no longer just about the incinerator. How do we stop the next industry from coming in? Whatever’s next, it needs to be aligned with our values and beliefs. We can’t settle on a project because it promises to offer jobs, or a minimal benefit to the community, at the risk of everyone’s health.
We have opportunities to invest in projects that are positive alternatives. There is a real possibility that we could have solar power in Curtis Bay. The goal is to fill the 97-acre incinerator site with community-owned solar panels, making it the biggest solar farm on the Eastern seaboard – which is amazing!
We’re looking at other alternatives in terms of managing waste and energy. When the incinerator was pitched, it claimed to solve both our energy and waste crises. We learned that we have to question where waste goes, and to manage it in a way that doesn’t violate our human rights or put lives at risk.
In terms of advocacy, we’re reaching out to the MDE and demanding answers on the future of the project. Energy Answers violated their permit, which means that they legally cannot construct on the land. We want MDE to publically announce that Energy Answers has violated their permit and they must reapply. The dream would be for them to say that there are positive alternatives to the incinerator.
We’ve also been working with the Baltimore City Energy Department and they don’t want the incinerator. We already have an incinerator in Baltimore that creates a third of the pollution and has been there since the ‘80s, and has monumental health consequences. They want to stop using that incinerator and invest in positive alternatives. They asked Energy Answers to develop 30 of the 97 acres for solar panels and the company said no.
You began your journey with Free Your Voice as a young adult—at an age where you do a lot of growing up and learning. How has your work to stop Energy Answers shaped who you are today?
I am certainly more radical than I have ever been! Before I joined Free Your Voice I didn’t really pay attention to the greater scheme of things. I, like many people my age, are in our own personal, independent bubble, not as concerned about the lives and health of others besides our loved ones. I didn’t really think of the big picture, when I tossed out a wrapper, where it goes and the consequences it could have for others and myself.
When I learned about the incinerator, I started to question a lot of things like where waste goes and what happens to it, because it doesn’t just disappear. Outside the realm of trash, I realized it is important to question why people invested in something, why things are the way they are, and what can I do to change things in a way that isn’t superficial but gets to the root of the problem.
What are your college and post-college life plans? Do you think your activism will play a role in what you want to do in the future?
When I was younger I wanted to be a journalist because I love storytelling. I want to make sure that the voices that matter and their stories are being told. A lot of times these voices are pushed out or muted.
Free Your Voice and United Workers (a human rights organization based out of Baltimore) are leaders that teach a younger generation of leaders. It’s a learning cycle that goes on with new people, people sharing their narrative and teaching people to do the same.
That’s something I want to do; making sure the voices that matter and their stories are being told. Teaching others to share their voice is something I’m passionate about and want to do with my future.
You’re one of the youngest winners of the Prize and in your early 20s it’s normal to have a lot of distractions! What has kept you focused?
The fact that the issue hits home for me is something that my family and I will be living with for a very long time if it’s constructed. It would be expensive to build, would cause a lot of heartache and pollution in the community and continue the cycle of development that doesn’t care for our health and well-being. We cannot continue this cycle. That’s not the type of world I want to live in, so I just vie to keep going and keep pushing because I know there has to be something better.
You can protect other communities from toxic air pollution by joining Destiny and to demand that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stop subsidizing trash-burning incinerators.