Palo Alto moves ahead with organic-waste plan

City Council approves four-phase approach for treating sewage, food scraps and yard trimmings

Palo Alto's convoluted and contentious debate over organic waste trudged toward a hard-won compromise Monday night when city officials adopted a new road map for processing local sewage sludge, food scraps and yard trimmings.

The City Council voted 7-2, with Karen Holman and Greg Schmid dissenting, to approve a four-phase approach recommended by Public Works staff, with sewage sludge designated as the highest priority, followed by food scraps and yard trimmings. In a nod to proponents of a new waste-to-energy plant at Byxbee Park, the vote also explicitly gives preference for compost operations located at the Bayland site that voters "undedicated" in 2011 when they passed Measure E.

The vast majority of the plan has the support of both sides of the city's green debate. Both agree that the city needs to retire its outdated and polluting incinerators and both would like to see food scraps turned into electricity. The glaring point of dispute on Monday was over composting -- mainly, the staff's recommendation that the Measure E site be used and that was added by staff as an "alternative recommendation" at the behest of the measure's supporters.

Even after the council's vote endorsing their wishes, Measure E supporters remained concerned that the city is moving too slowly on implementing voters' vision for local processing of yard trimmings.

Opponents of the measure, a group that includes some of the city's leading conservationists, lobbied for the staff's original recommendation, which also included the four phases but which was less explicit on the composting operation and did not mention the Measure E site.

In addition to approving the four-phase approach brought forward by staff, the council also agreed to scrap all three proposals that the city received from the private sector for treating Palo Alto's organic waste. Though Public Works officials are still preparing to solicit private-sector proposals, the intent now is to have the city own and operate the new waste-to-energy plant.

Phil Bobel, assistant director of Public Works, said staff is confident that the new approach will both give the city more control and save money. A revised cost analysis pegs the cost of the city's proposed four-step "Organics Facilities Plan" at $89.1 million over 20 years. Proposals from the two vendors that wanted to build an anaerobic-digestion plant for the city were $97 million (from the firm Harvest Power) and $107 million (from We Generation). The third vendor, Synagro, had a proposal with an estimated cost of $98.7 million, though it planned to export all three waste streams, a notion that was widely panned as being out of step with the city's desire to keep operations local.

"It would be a good idea to retest the market now," Bobel said Monday. "Now that we have a new end point, the Organics Facilities Plan, we have narrowed down what we're looking at."

Bobel also noted that wet anaerobic digestion is a technology that is widely in use across the country, and in most cases, it is public agencies that are running the operation.

The council's vote directs staff to begin work on a dewatering and truck haul-out facility, an addition to the regional water-treatment plant that would allow the city to retire its sludge-burning incinerators.

The second component of the new approach will focus on building the anaerobic digester, a plant that will process local sewage and convert it into electricity. The third step would create a food-preprocessing facility that would allow Palo Alto to add food into the mix to generate more electricity.

The final step would be to solve the yard-trimmings dilemma that has stumped city officials since 2012, when Palo Alto shut down its landfill at Byxbee Park, putting an end to the local compost operation.

For Councilman Larry Klein, the decision to support the revised staff recommendation, which explicitly cites the Measure E site, was a simple one. The council, he said, needs to respect the will of the voters, 65 percent of whom supported undedicating a 10-acre portion of Byxbee Park (staff now believes only 3.8 acres of the site would actually be needed). The voters, he said, have sent "a very clear message."

"Our discussion here seems to me has to be substantially influenced by the message that our bosses -- the people of Palo Alto -- very explicitly gave to us, by a 65-35 margin," Klein said. "They want the compost facility and they are willing to use up to 10 acres of our park facilities for that to be accomplished."

Holman and Schmid both sided with the conservationist camp, which opposes the use of Byxbee Park for a new waste-treatment plant. Holman pointed out that while Measure E makes the land available for the plant, it does not mandate that such a facility be built. That decision should still be based on factors like financial and environmental benefits, she said. Given that the city has yet to do a full environmental analysis of a local plant, these benefits remain unknown.

Holman and Schmid both advocated going along with the original staff recommendation, which also calls for a four-phase approach but which is fuzzier on the subject of composting yard trimmings. The first recommendation, which was criticized by Measure E proponents, does not mention the undedicated site at all. Holman and Schmid, both of whom had opposed Measure E, argued that the city hadn't yet adequately explored all of its composting options. Schmid said he "enthusiastically supports" pursuing an anaerobic digester for sewage sludge and food scraps, but was more cautious on the subject of yard-scraps composting. Holman agreed and said composting can be addressed later.

"Let's get going with the wastewater, the incinerator – that's a huge polluter. Let's get going now," Holman said. "We can address the composting issue as new technologies emerge and we adopt composting at-home solutions."

The rest of the council, however, sided with the broader group known as the Palo Alto Green Energy (PAGE) Initiative, which spearheaded Measure E with the intent of keeping composting local. Dozens of members of the group attended the meeting and urged the council to move faster in resolving the lingering composting quandary. Walt Hays, one of the leaders of the Measure E group, beseeched the council to get going on constructing the new technology, including a new composting facility.

"To have this whole thing go through and have nothing on the Measure E site would seem like a travesty," Hays said.

Peter Drekmeier, who also led the undedication effort, asked the council to send a "clear signal" that the Measure E site is the city's preferred area for composting.

"This has been a long process," Drekmeier said. "We can only kick the can so many times before it gets really dented."

Enid Pearson, a former councilwoman and a renowned conservationist, took the opposite view and asked the council to eschew politics and to proceed cautiously on composting solutions. Yard trimmings, she said, are a very small part of the overall garbage stream. The council should not rush to commit Measure E land but rather take "the long view."

Her side, however, was outnumbered both in the audience and on the council. Councilman Greg Scharff, who in the past also supported the use of Byxbee Park for a waste-to-energy plant, moved to support the revised staff recommendation, and most of his colleagues opted to join him. The council also endorsed Scharff's proposal directing staff to "expedite the process to the extent possible." The tentative timeline that staff first unveiled on April 29 showed the composting facility opening between 2020 and 2022, far later than many had hoped. Scharff also thanked the audience for its "fervor."

"I think it's really good that there's a healthy debate," Scharff said. "These issues are vetted and thought through, and I actually appreciate that as well.

"I'm proud to be in this community where we're very concerned about these issues."


Posted by John Kelley, a resident of Community Center
on May 13, 2014 at 9:18 am

The Palo Alto City Council and the City Staff, especially Phil Bobel, should be commended for listening to the community and for adopting the alternative City Staff recommendation.

Future generations will judge us based on how well we respond to the many challenges posed by climate change.

Palo Alto has now taken a big step forward. Now is the time to put past disputes behind us. The entire community should embrace the Council's decision and join in implementing the organic waste plan as quickly as possible, without any further delays.

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on May 13, 2014 at 9:22 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Great write up Gennady, you very accurately captured the details of the meeting.

I tallied the sentiments of the community comments and note that at both this and the prior meeting two weeks ago, 4 times more people spoke in favor of (vs against) the accelerated options which more immediately address what to do with the yard trimmings.

The concern from the PAGE Initiative group had been that staff's original timeline put dealing with yard trimmings at the tail end of a long process, around 2022 or later, by which time Measure E's 10 year threshold would be reached, allowing the future Council to rededicate the unused 10 acres back to parkland and losing the only site available for yard composting. Plus the idea of taking so long to do a simple yard composting operating would flaunt the will of the electorate. So we are reasonably happy with the outcome. It's not perfect but at least it's not terrible.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on May 13, 2014 at 9:55 am

The people who voted for Measure E were promised a grassy-roofed waste processing facility that would generate great gobs of energy from garbage. All they are getting is compost. What a neat little bait and switch.

Well, at least that compost is Palo Alto compost, uncontaminated with compost from Gilroy, etc. Let us rejoice.

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on May 13, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

curmudgeon, your statement is incorrect, and surprisingly uninformed given that I know you have been following and commenting on this story for a long time.

Through this process we are retiring the sewage incinerator and replacing it with an Anaerobic Digester (AD) which will produce net energy instead of consuming it. The original price for replacing the aging incinerator with a more modern incinerator was ~$270M, so the AD not only will decrease our Green House Gas (GHG) emmissions, it will save considerable capital and operational costs. Our activism and pressure and bringing to light the costs of replacing the incinerator with another incinerator is a large part of why Council directed that the incinerator should be retired ASAP.

The AD will also take in food waste, most of which currently goes to the landfill, where it gets buried by trash, starved of oxygen it breaks down anaerobically and releases methane to the atmosphere, a potent green house gas (20-70x more potent than CO2). Putting food in the AD will instead create methane in a contained process and burn it to produce energy, converting it to CO2. So digesting food waste instead of sending it to the landfill also has a considerable benefit in reducing our GHG emissions and generating income to offset capital and operational costs (instead of just being a pure cost to the city as a waste).

This process has taken way longer than most of us would have anticipated, but along the way city staff have identified space within the sewage treatment plant to accommodate the AD, and industry companies have confirmed that space is sufficient, thus reducing the area needed from the measure E site from 10 acres down to just 3.8 acres, which is the flat portion of the site. That reduced acreage is sufficient for a compact yard composting operation so we can drop off our yard clippings and pick up compost locally, instead of having to take it down to Sunnyvale (as residents) or Gilroy (as the city collections).

Enclosing the compost operation in a building is likely overkill, and is primarily an objective of the opponents desire to drive up its cost so as to make it less likely to happen. However there may still be a roof over it, TBD. The original renderings of the facility as shown during the campaign had the Dry AD and vessel composting contained in a building, which we offered with a grassy roof at a slightly higher cost to appease our opponents, but it also had a considerable processing area outdoors, an area larger than the currently proposed 3.8 acres.

Posted by cute chick, a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 13, 2014 at 12:59 pm

How about turning food scraps into eggs or is that too low-tech and not "convoluted" enough for Palo Alto? A 10x10 backyard plot will support a few chickens that will be more than happy to process you(and your neighbors?)food scraps and give you fresh healthy eggs in return. Since we've had chickens we've only put out a 15 gallon "trash" container once a month for the past 35 year since there's no "edible" food scraps ever getting thrown away. Imagine if a lot less of it ever got to the dumps in the first place.....might cause some solid waste manager to re-think the solution.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 13, 2014 at 1:13 pm

Am I the only one concerned about what this means to our trash cans around the City? Do we really want unwrapped food scraps including meat just getting tossed into trash cans which can encourage rats and other vermin. We already have a big problem with skunks and raccoons and take a great deal of effort in making sure that all food items in our trash are well wrapped and we still find the critters are able to sniff it out and raid our cans.

Posted by Cur Mudgeon, a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 13, 2014 at 1:29 pm

We were happy to be in the pilot program for the two can collection because we no longer use make backyard compost, which despite being a nice sturdy Smith & Hawken container, got chewed into by RATS and other critters.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on May 13, 2014 at 1:49 pm


When the human sewage sludge (+/- food scraps) is processed through the wet AD process, what happens to the residue? Certified organic farmers are prohibited from using it, due to toxics content in the incoming stream; many other people do not want to touch the stuff. If you end up having to truck the stuff away from PA, where would that be, and what would the projected costs be?

BTW, it was interesting that almost all of those who spoke in favor of wet AD used the term "biosolids" instead of saying what it really is: Human sewage sludge. The EPA put forth a national re-naming contest, because it wanted to avoid the terms "human sewage sludge"...the winning entry was "biosolids". Euphemisms are political tricks. It was sad to see CC buy into that trick from your side.

Posted by Brian, a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 13, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Cedric, I found your summary of the current plan, which the CC apparently put into motion last night, very helpful. Thanks.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on May 13, 2014 at 2:07 pm

"curmudgeon, your statement is incorrect, and surprisingly uninformed given that I know you have been following and commenting on this story for a long time."

You are misinformed about your own propaganda, which promised a wondrous garbage to energy thingy that would convert all our convertable organic waste into gobs of "green" energy for Palo Alto, while being neatly tucked under a "green" grassy roof. A sludge digester in the sewer plant (roofed or not) with some food scrap processing capability hooked up to a tiny electrical generator is far, far removed from your campaign promise.

Campaign promise. That explains everything.

Anyhow, the case has been made that AD is a very carbon-dirty process, based on numbers you yourself provided. Check it out here: Web Link

I think this guy's call for carbon sequestration instead of carbon return to the atmosphere makes metric tons more sense than anything around Measure E.

Posted by Baron, a resident of Barron Park
on May 13, 2014 at 4:20 pm

What does this mean for Byxbee Park? Is it gonna be a stinky park with a million seagulls again?

Posted by Silver Lining, a resident of Barron Park
on May 13, 2014 at 5:07 pm

They can take down the restrooms at Bixbie. We'll be able to go direct to the source with our local sewage sludge.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on May 13, 2014 at 6:28 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

>" a 65-35 margin," [Council member Larry] Klein said. "They want the compost facility and they are willing to use up to 10 acres of our park facilities for that to be accomplished."

In meeting after meeting, the advocates for Measure E assured the voters that the measure was simply about reserving the *option* to use the site for a composting facility and to give time to evaluate what the best choice was.

However, the votes were still being counted on Election Night when the Measure E supporters recast the vote as being to move ahead with the specific type of composting facility that they wanted (out of vanity to have Palo Alto be a "world leader"). It is this sort of rampant, pervasive dishonesty that has engendered so much contempt for City of Palo Alto government.

Posted by Vote 'em out, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 13, 2014 at 9:06 pm

This city council listens is not accountable to anyone but themselves and the greedy developers they serve. Sadly the only message they will understand will be at the ballot box. Vote 'em out.

Posted by Composter, a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 13, 2014 at 9:44 pm

We need all ten acres for future composting.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on May 14, 2014 at 11:26 am

"We need all ten acres for future composting. "

Would (could) Measure E have passed if it had been honestly fronted as giving up park for composting? Even if that compost would consist of pure Palo Alto leaves and grass clippings, uncontaminated by clippings and leaves from, like, Gilroy?

Probably not.

Garbage to Energy was the grand promise that carried it.

Snookered again.

"It is this sort of rampant, pervasive dishonesty that has engendered so much contempt for City of Palo Alto government."

And for certain ex-members of it.

Posted by Composter, a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 14, 2014 at 8:33 pm

@ curmudgeon

It is not a park, it is an ex landfill.

Posted by Composter, a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 14, 2014 at 8:45 pm

@ curmudgeon

Sorry, a decommissioned landfill with a sewage treatment plant next door. Oops! Did I forget to mention the airport and freeway nearby?

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on May 14, 2014 at 9:24 pm

Craig Laughton is a registered user.

When the processed human sewage sludge starts to back up, because Palo Alto may not be able to get of it, those ten full acres will be important. The question is: How high will it get piled? Alternatively, how much will it cost us to truck it away?

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on May 15, 2014 at 10:36 am

"Sorry, a decommissioned landfill with a sewage treatment plant next door... "

If only people would check the facts before they hit the submit button.

That ten acres was part of Byxbee Park prior to Measure E. De-parking it was what Measure E was all about.

Got that?

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on May 15, 2014 at 1:41 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.


Around the bay there are a series of parks that were formerly landfills. During a time when I had gaps between meetings in San Mateo, I would go to their equivalent of Byxbee Park to walk around (to think and to prep for next meeting). My observation was that it was a popular park, for joggers, walkers and people watching nature.

And Shoreline Amphitheater is a former landfill (and like most such sites, they had problems with methane gas leaking through the cap).

Hardly the undesirable land that "Composter" would have the reader believe.

"Composter" is typical of the advocates who pushed Measure E: They are unwilling/unable to respond to the positive points of the other side, resorting to gross misrepresentation.

Posted by Composter, a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 15, 2014 at 6:51 pm

@ curmudgeon and Moran:

It is an ex-landfill. No matter how it will be dressed up. it will still be an ex-landfill. Think of it as putting lipstick on a pig.

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