Baltimore, a city where more people die from air pollution than homicide — and the homicide rate is nothing to scoff at. Why is the air pollution so bad? Well, Curtis Bay — a neighborhood in Baltimore — is home to a coal export terminal, the nation’s largest medical waste facility, and an animal rendering plant, to name a few reasons.
In 2012, 17-year-old Destiny Watfod learned about a plan to build the country’s largest trash-burning incinerator in Curtis Bay just a mile from her school. Destiny looked around at her neighborhood, polluted by factory after factory, and decided she’d had enough. "Curtis Bay is my home," explained Destiny. "I grew up here. I live here. My family lives here. My friends live here. If a development like this is happening that would be putting our lives at risk, I couldn't ignore it."
She and her peers started an organization aimed at stopping the development of the incinerator called, Free Your Voice, . They found out that the Baltimore City Public School System would be purchasing energy from the incinerator and challenged that decision. They won — the school board changed its decision and backed out of the contract & 21 other businesses followed suit. Then, something even bigger happened. "We learned that the incinerator’s permit had expired," Destiny said. "This was a huge opportunity for us because with an expired permit, you can’t construct. But it would not matter unless the Maryland Department of the Environment said publicly, 'Your permits are expired.' Which they hadn’t." Free Your Voice organized protests, with people standing outside late into the night, urging the department to enforce the law and stop the incinerator. It took months, but eventually the state did declare that the permit was expired, effectively halting all operations.
A study published in Environmental Research Letters revealed that factories using toxic substances and waste plants are usually found in poor neighborhoods — and those neighborhoods are often predominantly made up of people of color.The phenomenon is nothing new. History has shown time and time again that poor neighborhoods are often used as dumping grounds. See the Flint water crisis.
The community united, and their unified, persistent voice was loud enough to be heard.
Thanks to Destiny and her peers, the future of Curtis Bay — and its air — is clearer.
And Destiny led the charge. Her passion for her community inspired positive change. If more communities follow suit, hopefully together, they can force the tide to change.