Baltimore student takes on gov't, saves town from more pollution

BALTIMORE --When 20-year-old Destiny Watford won aGoldman Environmental Prize on Monday night, it recognized an unlikely campaign she started as a high school student to protect her Baltimore neighborhood.

"We decided that it isn't the fate of our community or our planet to be a dumping ground," Destiny said in her acceptance speech.

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Destiny Watford

CBS News

Destiny grew up in Curtis Bay, a part of Baltimore with smokestack industries and some of the worst air pollution in the country. She made it her mission to stop construction of a huge new industrial incinerator less than a mile from her high school.

The plant had already been approved by both the city and state. At 17 years old, she was going up against the mayor, the governor, and a multi-million dollar corporation.

"It was an act of survival. Because this was our home," she said.

The incinerator would be capable of burning 4,000 tons of trash a day. Supporters called it a renewable energy plant because burning the waste would produce electricity. But that's not all it would produce.

"It was permitted to burn 240 pounds of mercury every year," Destiny explained. "It was permitted to release 1,000 pounds of lead."

Destiny, who describes herself as shy girl, took her battle first to the Baltimore school board. Then she testified at the Maryland state capital. And finally, she picked up a megaphone to mobilize her community.

"We are more likely to die from air pollution than from homicides," she told CBS News.

The pressure stalled the incinerator project, which has now lost its permit.

The Goldman Environmental Prize is awarded to only one person from each continent. Destiny is this year's winner from North America. She gets $175,000.

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Destiny Watford accepts her 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize

Goldman Environmental Prize

"I remember when I got the call, I thought it was a scam," Destiny said.

But Monday night proved to her it was no scam. She can do anything she wants with the money, but hopes to use it to help her neighborhood build new businesses that don't pollute.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.