Curtis Bay youth wins award for campaign against Fairfield incinerator

A Baltimore youth is being recognized for her fight against a trash incinerator.

When Destiny Watford was 16, she watched a play that warned about the perils of pollution that hit so close to home, she had to do something.

A Curtis Bay native, she had long lived with the neighborhood's industrial pollution, blamed for asthma and other respiratory illnesses. She feared what the impact of a planned trash incinerator might be, so she co-founded Free Your Voice, an advocacy group tied to Baltimore activist organization United Workers.

Her efforts to fight the project are now being recognized with the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize. The prize honors six "grassroots environmental heroes" each year -- one from each of the world's inhabited continents.

It comes with a $175,000 prize for Watford to pursue a "vision of a renewed and protected environment." She is receiving the award in a ceremony Monday night in San Francisco.

The Maryland Public Service Commission approved New York company Energy Answers International's plans to build a 160-megawatt trash-to-energy facility in Fairfield in 2010. But the project has faced numerous setback since -- in part because of Watford.

She and classmates at Benjamin Franklin High School, less than a mile from the plant site, used videography and design in a campaign to get the Baltimore City Public School system to renege on a deal it signed to buy electricity from the facility. Last year, Watford succeeded, and the school district, city government and dozens of other institutions backed out of their pledges.

In December, Watford and members of Free Your Voice and United Workers staged a protest at the Maryland Department of the Environment urging it to rescind a permit for the Energy Answers project. There had been no construction activity on the site for 18 months, a violation of air quality provisions under Energy Answers' permit from the state, they argued.

The department agreed last month, determining Energy Answers had violated the permit and recommending that the Public Service Commission reconsider its approval of the project. The commission is still reviewing that recommendation and giving Energy Answers a chance to respond.

Watford, who is now a junior at Towson University, called the award "powerful and affirming."

"It shows the work we are doing is actually making a difference and people are paying attention," she said. "It really inspires us to keep working."

She said she and her peers plan to put the money toward more efforts focused on human rights -- and not just the right to breathe clean air.

"At the root of the fight to stop the incinerator has been looking at human rights and understanding how they exist within our society and our daily lives," Watford said. "The work I want to keep doing is centered in human rights, whether that’s fighting environmental injustice or working on other injustices we face that are of course all connected to each other."

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