News

Palo Alto looks for new ways to deal with its sewage

City's sludge incinerators at odds with clean-energy values, practices

A short stroll from the marshy sanctuaries of the Palo Alto Baylands, inside a concrete tower off Embarcadero Road, lies an inferno that would make Dante gag.

For 42 years and counting, this fiery tower has been incinerating the sewage sludge flowing in from Palo Alto, Stanford University and surrounding cities. It is the final pit stop for the sludge after a long and circuitous treatment process that begins with the flush of a toilet and ends with a truck full of ash making its weekly trip from Palo Alto to a landfill in Kettleman City, more than 100 miles away.

The incinerators -- there are two at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant -- are by far the most unpopular component of the sprawling campus. When they were built in 1969, the sludge-burning towers were widely viewed as a vital upgrade to the former practice of burying waste in landfills. But while their function hasn't changed, their reputation has been steadily plummeting. Today, as the City of Palo Alto boasts about myriad clean-energy initiatives -- from an electricity portfolio that's carbon neutral to environmentally beneficial building codes to cutting-edge laws preparing the city for the electric-vehicle revolution -- the furnaces quietly burn in the background, releasing more than 20,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to a 2009 analysis by a specially appointed citizens task force. For local environmentalists, including members of the City Council, it is the antithesis of everything for which the city otherwise stands.

"It's the biggest single source of greenhouse gases in the city," former Palo Alto Mayor Peter Drekmeier told the Weekly.

Drekmeier has long advocated for a new sewage facility that would create energy, rather than just smoke and ash, from the so-called biosolids. The incinerators are near the end of their useful life and replacing them would be far more expensive than changing to a cleaner technology, he has said.

The dislike of the incinerators is nothing new, either.

"For us to be burning our biosolids is terrible," Jonathan Foster, then-vice chair of the city's Utilities Advisory Commission, said in 2011 as the group was discussing a proposed plant that would convert waste into energy. "It's expensive, and the contributions to the environment couldn't possibly be worse. We should send a message to the City Council that we should absolutely move forward in the direction that would lead to the closure of the incinerator."

Even Emily Renzel, a former councilwoman and a leading conservationist who opposes building a waste-to-energy facility in the Baylands, has no reservations when it comes to retiring the incinerators.

"It's the biggest dollars, the biggest energy spent, the biggest polluter," Renzel said. Getting rid of them, she told the Weekly, is "the biggest and most important decision" in the city's future handling of its waste.

Unity against the sludge burners provides a singular point of agreement in an otherwise raging civic debate over the city's grand vision for organic waste.

A strong contingent of the environmentalist community, those who agree with Drekmeier, thinks a new plant should be built in the Baylands to turn sludge, food scraps and possibly yard trimmings into energy. In 2011, the group successfully spearheaded Measure E, which "undedicated" a 10-acre portion of the Baylands' Byxbee Park for this purpose.

Others, from Renzel's conservationist camp, strongly oppose this plan, saying that parkland should not be used for a new industrial waste operation.

But on the issue of biosolids, there is little debate, despite the fact that the effort of upgrading the treatment plant will take years, cost tens of millions of dollars and lead to years of rising wastewater bills for residents of Palo Alto and partner cities.

The City Council, which is as divided as the community on the issue of organic-waste composting and yet united on the issue of incinerators, took a big step last month toward finally putting the burners to bed. On May 12, the council voted to adopt an ambitious multi-year plan that will cost about $85 million dollars to implement and that establishes as a top priority the retirement of the incinerators. Once done, Palo Alto will no longer be one of only two cities in the state that still relies on the sludge burners (Central Contra Costa Sanitary District is the other).

In approving what is now called the Organics Facilities Plan, the council authorized Public Works staff to begin design work for a facility where the sludge would be dehydrated (also known as "dewatered") and prepared for hauling away. The new, $12 million facility would allow the city to decommission the incinerators and begin shipping its sludge to another waste center, most likely the East Bay Municipal Utility District.

Roughly $200 million in other renovations are eyed for the wastewater treatment plant over the next decade. To fund improvements, the city plans to seek grants and bonds. But ratepayers in Palo Alto and its partner agencies will also have to help foot the bill. The latest city forecasts show sewage rates (which in Palo Alto currently add up to about $29 on an average monthly residential bill) rising by 7 percent in 2016 after years of remaining flat. Further 7 percent increases are projected for 2017, 2018 and 2019.

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The pending retirement of the incinerators and questions over what will replace them are but recurring refrains in a conversation that began at the city's inception. For Palo Alto's earliest residents, sewage was neither out of sight nor out of mind.

Just after its incorporation in 1894, the city began planning its first sewer network, which was funded by a $28,000 bond in 1898 and constructed the following year. The system included 60 miles of sewers, served about 3,000 people and discharged raw sewage from a 12-inch pipe at the edge of south San Francisco Bay, according to the city's Long Range Facilities Plan for the treatment plant.

By the 1920s, with the city growing and new park improvements planned for the Baylands, officials began to rethink their strategy of dumping solid waste into the Bay. Health officials feared the consequences of the raw sewage on park visitors and boaters at the new yacht club. Furthermore, high tides pushed sewage out of the manholes and onto the city streets, complicating the city's and Stanford's expansion plans.

By the end of the decade, the city began planning for a treatment plant, one of the first in the San Francisco Bay Area. It began operations in 1934 and had the capacity of 3 million gallons a day. It discharged the effluent 700 feet offshore, according to the long-range plan, and treated raw sewage through anaerobic digestion (a forefather to the technology that the city is now considering, which uses bacteria in an oxygen-deprived atmosphere to process organic waste and release methane, which is then converted to biogas).

As the city's population grew, the plant underwent a series of expansions, its capacity doubling by 1956. Yet even with these improvements, "It became apparent by the late '60s that the plant would soon be overloaded again," wrote Ward Winslow in "Palo Alto: A Centennial History." Industry was on the rise, and the city's area roughly doubled, overwhelming parts of the sewer system.

With the state adding new water-quality regulations, Palo Alto, Los Altos and Mountain View agreed to build a new wastewater-treatment plant, a facility that would also process wastewater from Stanford, Los Altos Hills, the East Palo Alto Sanitary District and (before its annexation by Palo Alto) Barron Park.

Winslow calls the 1968 facility a "state-of-the-art plant" and notes that the city had even made money from gold, silver and other precious metals that were recovered from the sludge.

The incinerators that came online appeared to solve a number of problems at the time, according to Jaime Allen, the current plant manager.

The burgeoning electronics industry was sending many heavy metals to the plant, which were disrupting the anaerobic digesters. One alternative, trucking out the sludge, "smelled really bad," he said.

But incineration could handle the metals, didn't smell so much and would lessen the impact of the resulting wastewater on the Bay.

"It didn't need much land and energy prices were quite low at the time," he said.

The sewer system, meanwhile, continued to gradually expand and today encompasses about 217 miles, according to a recent financial forecast from the city.

Now, form follows function at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant, a 25-acre industrial campus that somehow remains hidden in a city that is often referred to as "built out." The structures housing the incinerators and the wastewater pools are set far enough off from Embarcadero that a passing driver may not even realize that just yards away stands an industrial plant that treats 100,000 gallons of sludge daily.

It's really easy not to think about the plant.

"When you flush, it's out of sight and out of mind," Allen said during a recent tour of the facility.

Despite their notoriety, the two incinerators take up only a small portion of a campus filled with tanks, pumps and testing laboratories. The first line of defense is the "grit room," a malodorous enclosure in the middle of the campus where rags, plastic bags and other forms of debris are removed by bar screens from the stream of waste entering the plant. From there, the wastewater is pumped into four "primary sedimentation tanks," each of which is 220 feet long, 40 feet wide and 11 feet deep. This is where grit is removed from the wastewater and where solid sludge is separated out and sent to three "sludge thickeners."

The wastewater then flows through different stations where nature and engineering combine to remove unwanted organics from the stream before it flows into the Bay. In the first tower, water cascades over a plastic, herringbone-patterned filter that's covered with oxygen-eating bacteria. The filter consists of about 8.5 million square feet of plastic, Allen said.

"If you stretch it out, it would cover about 1 percent of Palo Alto," he said.

Next to this filter stand four green and bubbly lagoons where Mother Nature does most of the work. The microbes in this giant "aeration basin" convert ammonia and other organics in the water into heavy biomass that falls to the bottom.

In the next pool over, a boisterous flock of seagulls happens to congregate in another sprawling wastewater pool to feast on the microscopic worms that in turn feast on the effluent bacteria.

From there, the wastewater proceeds through filters of sand and charcoal and undergoes ultraviolet disinfection before it splashes into the Bay. The lattermost process is relatively new at the plant, having been installed in 2010 as a response to increasingly stringent water-quality regulations.

The extensive wastewater-treatment process looks and feels relatively modern. The odor is tolerable around the pools, despite the never-ending stream of wastewater flowing through the pipes and pools. It is manned by 72 employees and monitored 24/7 on 23 flat screens displaying information about water flows, oxygen levels, pollution emissions and energy use, along with other data. On a recent afternoon, one screen showed the amount of wastewater flowing into the plant from each of the partner agencies. Mountain View was slightly ahead of Palo Alto, with other partners lagging far behind.

"Peak flow is halftime on Super Bowl Sunday," Public Works Director Mike Sartor said during a tour of the operations building. "That's kind of the legend. You have to be able to handle the halftime of the Super Bowl."

Allen said the wastewater plant processes about 23 million gallons of wastewater a day. The peak flow is around noon, when the rate is closer to 30 million. In the early morning hours, before the showers start running, the amount drops to about 10 million gallons. The constant monitoring and testing give the plant the feel of a high-tech facility that cannot fail.

The same cannot be said of the final step for treating solid waste -- incineration -- which is plagued by rust, corrosion, a foul odor and a dismal reputation. The two incinerators are housed in cylindrical towers, each of which consists of stacked hearths. After the dewatered sludge comes in through the top of the furnace, it passes down through three zones: the drying zone at the top, the combustion zone in the middle and the cooling zone at the bottom. When sludge reaches the middle zone, air and natural gas are added to the hearths, raising operating temperatures to up to 930 degrees Celsius (1,706 Fahrenheit), according to the plant's Long Range Facilities Plan.

The process reduces the volume of sludge by a ratio of 20 to 1. It takes only about one truck per week to haul the ash. Without the burning, it would take four trucks a day, Allen said.

When asked about the council's recent decision to revamp the sludge operation, Sartor and Allen noted that the existing incinerators are old, that replacing them would be extremely costly and that they are having a hard time meeting the federal government's increasingly stringent air-quality requirements. The process also isn't very energy efficient.

"Our treatment plant is the highest, single-most intense fuel-use of any city facility by orders of magnitude," Sartor said.

In addition to the pollution and energy consumption, the incinerators also face questions over seismic safety. In 2012, the city completed an assessment of the entire wastewater plant to see which components need to be replaced and when. The Long Range Facilities Plan, which was put together by the firm Corolla Engineers, concluded that while the furnaces are unlikely to collapse in the event of an earthquake, they would suffer interior damage.

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If things go as outlined in the new Organics Facilities Plan, the incinerators would flicker for the final time in 2018, capping a half century of critical but often thankless service.

Then the sludge would be trucked to either the Synagro facility in Merced County or the EBMUD anaerobic-digestion plant in Oakland as an interim solution while the city's long-range, big-ticket item -- a wet anaerobic digester -- is being designed and constructed. The new dewatering and truck off-hauling facility would be completed prior to the incinerators' retirement. Staff estimates that demolishing the incinerators will reduce 2,343 annual tons of greenhouse-gas emissions and open up about half an acre on the campus for construction of the new anaerobic digester.

Even so, it's not exactly a cause for celebration.

"The dewatering facility is essentially an insurance policy," Drekmeier told the Weekly, referring to it as a long-term backup to the digester. "No one really gets excited about insurance policies until they're needed."

The anaerobic digester, according to staff's most recent timeline, would be in place by 2021.

Before the new anaerobic digester is built, the city still has to work out numerous crucial details, not the least of which are financing and the ownership model. Public Works initially recommended having a private company operate the new plant. Now, staff is leaning toward having it be a city-owned facility.

Palo Alto will also have to convince its partners to support and help pay for the wet anaerobic digester. Assistant Public Works Director Phil Bobel told the council on May 12 that the other cities will be on board when it comes to replacing incinerators and treating sludge in a new energy-generating plant. Composting food scraps, however, might be another, more technologically complicated, matter.

"We know on the sewage part of it we'll have the five other partners in the treatment plant, but on the food side we don't know if we have any," Bobel said. "We'll have to work that out."

The partnering cities have been receiving updates, Bobel said, but are not expected to take any action on the organics plan until after Palo Alto moves ahead with the new plant.

So far, not everyone is convinced that anaerobic digestion is the way to go. Dennis Scherzer, a board member at the East Palo Alto Sanitation District, is among the skeptics. At the April 29 meeting of the City Council, he urged Palo Alto officials not to pursue an anaerobic digester and to instead consider other "tried and true" technologies such as gasification, which uses heat and oxygen and/or steam, and pyrolysis, which uses heat.

"I will not be voting to support an anaerobic digester," Scherzer said.

Under the city's timeline, staff will hold meetings with its partner cities this year and next and develop financing plans for the new sewage facilities by March 2015. Once the dewatering and haul-out facility are completed, the incinerators would be demolished. This means that in the next five years, the way in which Palo Alto treats its sewage will undergo its most significant transformation in nearly half a century.

Until then, the wastewater dilemma promises to be the most benign component of a conversation that remains deeply contentious. On May 12, proponents of a local waste-to-energy facility scored a victory of sorts when the council directed staff to move faster on the composting piece of the organic-waste puzzle. The council asked Public Works to immediately issue a request for proposals for composting and to give preference to the Measure E site (of which, officials now believe, only 3.8 acres would actually be needed). Councilwoman Karen Holman was one of two members who dissented, along with Greg Schmid, and sided with the conservationist camp that advocated holding off on composting decisions. But when it comes to sewage, she was as bullish as anyone.

"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 on-site at-home solutions."

Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who unlike Holman supports a composting facility in the Baylands, likened it to the city's prior game-changing decisions such as the installation of a dark fiber ring, a move that she said "paid off spectacularly in ways we can't see." Shepherd said she will cast her vote "enthusiastically," even as she acknowledged that the topic isn't as sexy as Palo Alto's other technological breakthroughs.

"I get to talk about sewage sludge with my friends and how not to incinerate it and how to be responsible and continue to push the envelope of responsibility, even if it's not pretty to do," Shepherd said.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by John Cessna
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 27, 2014 at 8:06 am

I do believe I saw them dumping the "waste" into the landfill next to the plant. This news report is wrong. In fact most things in the news these days are wrong, what gives?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 27, 2014 at 8:54 am

Yes, it gets tangled and confusing. What does everyone else do? That's what I'd look at.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Radioactive Burrowing Owl
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 27, 2014 at 10:35 am

Palo Alto should just turn the golf course into a sewage farm.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Stunned
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 27, 2014 at 11:21 am

You need to check your facts. Palo Altans don't create sewage. If we do, I'm sure it doesn't smell.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dianne
a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 27, 2014 at 11:53 am

Generally a good article, but it would have benefitted by hyper links to the relevant documents, as well as some brief introduction to the costs of some of the possible sludge solutions.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Democracy-or-Mass-Insanity
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 27, 2014 at 12:19 pm

> Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who unlike Holman supports a composting facility
> in the Baylands, likened it to the city's prior game-changing
> decisions such as the installation of a dark fiber ring, a move
> that she said "paid off spectacularly in ways we can't see."

Another reason that Nancy Shepherd is unqualified to be on the Council--much less Palo Alto's mayor. Palo Alto's so-called "dark fiber ring" has had virtually no impact on Palo Alto's telecommunications landscape. It barely is profitable, and has fewer customers than George Washington has had birthdays.

And to suggest that anything the City does can't be measured (although it has "paid off spectacularly") demonstrates someone without any sense of scientific reasoning, or even a simple command of the English language.

There is simply no relationship between the City's trying to run the two major telecom players out of town, and whether or not a new (and not all that well tested technology) is used to deal with our sewage in the future.

Shepherd really needs to go!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jun 27, 2014 at 12:23 pm

At high tide the baylands area in front of the facility is at top level full of water. And this is the drought period. When we get into winter and heavy rains (El Nino) the water is going to overflow its banks into the facility and airport.
The ground water is already high - the golf course has soil issues due to bay water causing too much salt - hard to grow grass.
Someone better come up with "the plan" as fall and winter arrive as to how this will be handled. If flood waters are entering the buildings then the whole operation is at risk.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Engineer
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 27, 2014 at 12:42 pm

" Palo Alto's so-called "dark fiber ring" has had virtually no impact on Palo Alto's telecommunications landscape."

Dark fiber has no impact at all. Dark fibers are called dark because there is no light shining through them; they are unused.

Palo Alto has sludge to dispose, and it has methane from the landfill that it has to do something with. Why not burn the methane to roast the sludge to biochar, and take the result to the licensed toxic waste facility where they will have to deposit the sludge AD residue anyway? This keeps the carbon in the sludge locked up instead of returning it to the atmosphere as AD would do.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by sweetie
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 27, 2014 at 1:24 pm

"You need to check your facts. Palo Altans don't create sewage. If we do, I'm sure it doesn't smell."

@Stunned,
I think our City Councilmembers are Palo Altans. I would say they definitely create sewage. We're up to our necks...


 +   Like this comment
Posted by sweetie
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 27, 2014 at 1:25 pm

"You need to check your facts. Palo Altans don't create sewage. If we do, I'm sure it doesn't smell."

@Stunned,
I think our City Councilmembers are Palo Altans. I would say they definitely create sewage, and it definitely does smell...


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Emily Renzel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 27, 2014 at 3:56 pm

There is some confusion in this article between the "waste to energy" digesters at the Sewage Plant that will replace the incinerators and will be built, not on parkland, but within the Sewage Plant site -- and the perfectly ordinary composting of yard trimmings proposed on an important habitat corridor removed from Byxbee Park by the voters in order to study options for all Palo Alto's organics. Of the responses to the Organics Request for Proposals, the "export option" ranked highest. But one proposer's technology for the Sewage Plant offered a chance to retire the incinerators and take care of two of the three organic streams.

I have never opposed building the waste to energy digesters ON the Sewage Plant site. But I think it is a terrible mistake to shoe-horn in a yard trimmings composting operation between the Sewage Plant and right under the noses of all users of Byxbee Park while destroying an important habitat corridor. NO energy will be produced. NO money will be saved without various significant government subsidies. AND, in the end, the vast majority of the compost produced will be shipped to farmers in Salinas Valley or other high intensity row crop growing areas as it was in the past.

I believe the voters have been duped by a "Bait and Switch" scheme where none of the promises are being kept but the vote is being used to strong arm the Council into a scenario which makes no sense at all.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by sweetie
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 27, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Emily Renzel,
Will you please serve on Council again? Our town needs you.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident II
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 28, 2014 at 12:51 am

How about going back to septic tanks like so many other cities in the US?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sid
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 28, 2014 at 12:53 pm

I wonder about the role of garbage disposers in generating sewage waste. It seems that it is a bad idea to use scarce Hetch-Hetcy water as a propellant for kitchen waste which has to be treated at the sewage treatment plant and turned into sludge to later be incinerated, rather than just putting this waste into compost. How many gallons of water are used, and how many megawatts are expended for this "modern convenience"?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Portola Valley
on Jun 29, 2014 at 8:25 pm

20,000 megatons of CO2 = 20 billion tons from one sewage facility. Can that be right?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by gsheyner
a resident of another community
on Jun 30, 2014 at 9:12 am

gsheyner is a registered user.

John,

Thanks for your comment. It should say 20,000 "metric tons." Sorry about the error.

-Gennady


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Out in the sticks
a resident of another community
on Jul 1, 2014 at 9:17 am

I now live in a community where septic systems are the norm. Thinking about switching Palo Alto to septic systems leads to an interesting picture.

First, you need good percolation and distance to groundwater. That requirement eliminates all of Palo Alto that is on bay fill. Therefore, no residences or bathrooms between Ross Road and the bay.

You also need a large enough area for the leach field. In my community we also require enough space to install a second one should the first fail. That leads to a minimum lot size for a single-family home of 0.7 acres. That would mean demolishing one or two houses for each home that would get a leach field.

The resulting bucolic Palo Alto would have fewer than 20,000 residents. Which political faction in Palo Alto would get behind that vision?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 1, 2014 at 11:07 am

Milwaukee, WI has recycled its municipal sewage for over 85 years, returning cleaned water to Lake Michigan and packaging the processed, dried solids as Milorganite fertilizer that is sold at garden centers throughout the country. It is used on lawns, gardens, and golf courses and produces. Over 9 billion pounds have been sold since 1926, though sales don't entirely cover the costs of manufacture.
Milorganite can be used without restriction on gardens intended for human consumption under US EPA rules. Heat dried biosolids contain slow release organic nitrogen, largely water insoluble phosphorus bound with iron and aluminum and high organic matter. Milorganite releases 85% of its nitrogen slowly as turf grows and the 4% Iron enhances turf's color.
Seems like this might be solution for sewage solids throughout the Bay Area.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by 20,000 megatons
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 1, 2014 at 12:03 pm

How is it that four truckloads per day of sludge - the amount that would need to be trucked elsewhere if we don't incinerate it here - becomes "20,000 megatons" of carbon dioxide when incinerated on site. 4 truckloads x 365 days x 40,000 pounds per truckload would suggest 58.4 million pounds of sludge. 20,000 megatons of carbon dioxide is 40 billion pounds of carbon dioxide. How could that be so?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 1, 2014 at 12:15 pm

"Milorganite can be used without restriction on gardens intended for human consumption under US EPA rules"

Perhaps, but it cannot be used on certified organic farms, due to toxics buildup in the soil over time. What will Palo Alto do with its processed human sewage sludge?

Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 1, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Jenny -
I don't have a horse in this race but I'd just point out that 1) not all gardens are organic and 2) applications on lawns & golf courses make the issue moot in those cases, no?
From what I read the Milorganite folks are quite aware of the heavy metal issue and divert any sources above certain limits. To quote from the Wikipedia article:
"Milorganite is tested daily for the presence of heavy metals and pathogens. Milorganite surpasses the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) "Exceptional Quality" criteria, which establishes the strictest concentration limits in the fertilizer industry for heavy metals, allowing Milorganite to be used on food crops."
Seems that this is still a better way to dispose of sewage sludge than our current method of burning it, even if its use is limited to green spaces.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 1, 2014 at 9:28 pm

Steve, I do have a horse in the race, since I am a Palo Alto citizen. Our human sewage sludge is an issue that we need to resolve. Are you saying that PA sewage sludge can be spread on Menlo Park public spaces?

My main concern is that Palo Alto will become stuck with a serious liability.

There must be some better way to eliminate the sludge.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 2, 2014 at 10:35 am

Jenny -
It seems to me you're throwing the baby out with the bath water here. Sewage sludge is high in nitrogen, phosphorus, organics, and iron, all of which are beneficial to growing plants. Why throw away these valuable nutrients, which otherwise have to be replaced with expensive products that require natural gas (in the case of nitrogen) or deplete natural deposits (in the case of phosphorus and iron)? From reading various websites, I've learned that many organic gardeners are quite happy to use Milorganite on their gardens & lawns. Web Link
You haven't yet convinced me that there is a significant downside, simply because they contain very minor amounts of trace metals. Do you have studies that show there is a hazard here? From what I read, the levels of toxic metals is below those found naturally in soils in many parts of the country. Specifically, the levels of the nine metals regulated by US EPA found in Milorganite are well below the maximum levels allowed. Some of these metals, like copper, are actually beneficial micro-nutrients.
Before getting too far into it, it seems that the first step would be to test the sludge currently being produced to see what, if any, toxic materials it contains. The level of toxins one way or the other may decide this question.
My personal opinion is that one should use locally produced product and not purchase material that has to be shipped al the way across the country.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 2, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Steve,

If Menlo Park is willing to sign a contract to take all of our sewage sludge, I am sure that would be helpful. There are many toxics found in the sludge, not just heavy metals. San Francisco used to give it away, until the public protested. However, if the voters of Menlo Park think it so valuable, like you do, they can think of it as a good will gesture from Palo Alto. Deal?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 3, 2014 at 9:23 am

Jenny -
You seem so sure of yourself. Could you provide a reference or two to support your claims about the toxic nature of Milorganite?
And BTW - I'm not indicating one way or the other where the processed sludge should be applied. Maybe the best use, given your unsupported fears about it, would be occasional application in agricultural or forestry lands where the buildup of toxics that you seem most concerned with would not be an issue. But to eliminate a discussion of this alternative based on your so far unsupported fears seems premature, at best. Especially given the demonstrated cost to the environment in continuing as we are.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 3, 2014 at 9:58 am

Steve,

Did you read the link I provided, above? If so, are still saying that Palo Alto can give its sludge to Menlo Park for application on its green spaces?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 3, 2014 at 1:53 pm

Jenny -

You seem to have a thing about Menlo Park accepting Palo Alto's poop. Get over it. That's not what I ever suggested.
My point was simply that Palo Alto could follow the lead of another city that has dealt with it's solid waste problem in a creative manner that doesn't pollute the environment by burning or discharging it but instead, improves the environment by converting it to a safe and sustainable source of fertilizer. The product, Milorganite, has been used throughout the country for nearly 90 years with no reported harm. You'd think that if your concerns were legitimate that some problems would have cropped up after 90 years and with 90 billion pounds having been used. From my reading, even organic gardeners are happy to use it. Consider this quote from the article "Organic-Based Products are Rarely Organic" Web Link:
"Having since personally visited the Milorganite plant, I now believe that company does as good a job as possible testing its product to make sure it is as free, as possible, from contaminants. I would now use Milorganite on my own lawn. I cannot say that, however, for all bio-solids products because I do not believe all companies and plants adhere to the strict Miloganite testing regimen."
And yes I read your link. Thank you. It dealt with concerns about biosolids in general but didn't have much specific to say about Milorganite in particular.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 3, 2014 at 2:38 pm

"Then there's Milorganite. Milwaukee has been bagging digested sludge since 1925 and selling it as a home and garden fertilizer under the name Milorganite. A few years ago the packaging was labeled in large letters, "Organic," and you had to read the smaller print on the back to learn that it was processed sewage sludge. According to a chart in its technical bulletin, "Milorganite and Heavy Metals," the fertilizer contains copper concentrations 13 times higher than those found in typical soils around my upstate N.Y. garden. Mercury and zinc concentrations are eight times higher, and lead, at 74 ppm, five times higher than in my native soils." (from the link that I provided).

Oh btw, Milorganite, is prohibited from use on certified organic farms. This means that stores that advertise organic food, prohibit such sludge-derived materials .

Since you think that the sludge product is very good fertilizer, you should welcome a free supply from Palo Alto. You can cover your parks and school lawns with it, as well as your gardens.



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Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 3, 2014 at 4:12 pm

Jenny -
I would be glad to use Milorganite on my lawn & garden. However, it's kind of expensive and hard to find. And unfortunately Palo Alto doesn't have anything equivalent yet - unprocessed sludge is not the same at all - but if they should ever decide to follow Milwaukee's lead, I'll be the first in line for their product.
The quote from the link you provided is not particularly useful since there are huge variations in amount of naturally occurring heavy metals across the country and the fact that Milorganite may have higher concentrations than found in her backyard is almost meaningless.
Take copper for example. The average concentration in the US is 25 part per million but the range of natural concentrations varies from 1 to 700 ppm. Web Link Her home is in upstate New York which is particularly low in copper at only about 3 ppm. So 13 X 3 = 39 ppm, a concentration that is lower than that naturally occurring in much of the US, including most of western California. So, ironically, adding Milorganite to your garden might actually reduce the concentration of copper from its normal level. This is not something you'd probably want to do since copper is an essential micro-nutrient required by plants, micro-organisms, and people (along with zinc, iron, nickel and other metals).
Similarly with lead, your link mentions that Milorganite has a concentration of 74 ppm. Yet lead occurs in natural concentrations of 10 to 700 ppm across this country. EPA has set a standard for lead in bare soil in play areas of 400 ppm and 1,200 ppm for nonplay areas. From this perspective, 74 ppm doesn't seem bad at all. Not to mention the fact that plants do not readily absorb large amounts of lead.
So I take everything in in your link with a large grain of salt. And so should you. There's certainly nothing in the link that makes me think Palo Alto should not at least consider recycling its biosolids as Milwaukee has done. To my way of thinking it is environmentally a win-win solution.


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Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 3, 2014 at 5:26 pm

Steve,

Leaving aside the toxic issues with sewage sludge, Milorganite requires substantial natural gas to dry it out, and pellet it. This means greenhouse gases. Yet there is no net energy in return, just nitrogen fertilizer. Is this an effective tradeoff?

If a sewage sludge product cannot be accepted by the certified organic farms, Palo Alto should not get involved with it. We could get stuck with it.


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Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 3, 2014 at 8:02 pm

Jenny -
I'm embarrassed - I should read more carefully. Turns out, after re-reading the article, that Palo Alto's interim plan is to send their sludge to Merced where the Synagro company will turn it into pelletized fertilizer, much like Milorganite, that it also sells to gardeners across the country. Turns out they produce nearly half a million tons of pellitized fertilizer per year across the country. Fascinating! I had no idea. Web Link
Some of Palo Alto's sludge will also go to EBMUD where they will process it for methane to fuel electric generators, with some of the resulting byproducts also being used as biosolid fertilizers. The long-term plan is for PA to get its own anaerobic digester to create methane, presumably to generate electricity for the city. No clue from the article whether the leftovers will be used as fertilizer or simply discarded in landfill. My guess is that they would still have value as fertilizer.
Bottom line is that I will soon be able to apply pelletized Palo Alto Poop to my lawn, once Synagro starts accepting their shipments :)


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Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 3, 2014 at 9:26 pm

So why are we worried about the turd farm?


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Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 4, 2014 at 1:06 pm

Steve,

Palo Alto will not "send" its sludge anywhere, it will TRUCK it somewhere. That means fossil fuel consumption. If it gets pelleted, that means even more fossil fuel for the heat and machinery required in the process. Then packaging in plastic bags (more fossil fuels), the hauling of the pellets back over to you, for your garden fertilizer, as well as your fossil fuels (direct and indirect) for you to buy it and transport back home in your car. It doesn't make sense to me.

Has anybody made a study of the full-life fossil fuels usage of the fertilizer that you like so much? Is it more or less than simply incinerating it in Palo Alto, as we do now?

Again, if we get stuck with this stuff, it could be a real financial and ideological disaster for PA. Our city council has yet to discuss such matters, I think.


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Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 4, 2014 at 4:36 pm

Jenny -
The article said that incineration of the sludge, Palo Alto's current practice, releases more than 20,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, the biggest single source of greenhouse gases in the city. Almost anything would be better than what is currently being done. Basically every bit of carbon in the sludge is being converted to CO2, along with the natural gas used to first dry it and then burn it.

In contrast, pelletizing the sludge keeps much of the carbon intact so it can enrich the soil instead of pollute the atmosphere. The process uses the minimum amount of gas in drying - most of the water is removed by other processes. And in the end, there's no truckloads of ash residue that need to be disposed of in landfills.

The pelletized sludge also provides nitrogen, phosphate, and iron to lawns & gardens - valuable nutrients that are currently lost in the incineration process. To replace these lost nutrients fertilizers need to be produced from natural gas or by mining, fertilizers that require fossil fuels to recover, process, and transport.

It's clear to me that recycling the sludge is so much more environmentally efficient & sustainable that I really don't understand why you continue to have a problem with it. Instead of producing copious amounts of CO2 to dry & burn the stuff and ending up with nothing but ash that takes up space in a landfill, the pellet process uses far less fossil fuels, introduces far less CO2 into the atmosphere, and enriches the soils in lawns, gardens, farms and orchards across the country.

OK - regulations say it can't be used on certified organic crops but there are a lot of organic gardeners and regular farmers who are willing to pay good money for this fertilizer that is clearly environmentally superior to the chemical alternatives.


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Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 4, 2014 at 5:04 pm

Steve,

Why do you say that trucking and drying and pelletizing of sludge is less intense of fossil fuels usage than simply incinerating it at the local site? Where's the proof? The original article says that incineration results in one truck per week (for the ash), versus four trucks per day (for the sludge). In the end, all of the carbon in sludge goes to carbon dioxide, so why bother to truck it all over the place?

You continue to avoid addressing my question: What does Palo Alto do, if we get stuck with the stuff? Will Menlo Park take it?


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Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 4, 2014 at 6:38 pm

Jenny -
The proof requires a bit of calculation but the information is easily obtained on the internet.
An on-line CO2 calculator says that a semi will produce 0.000046 lbs of CO2 per lb of load per mile driven. Web Link
Roundtrip Palo Alto to Merced is 260 miles
For four trucks/week, that's 1040 miles. So for every lb of sludge carried to Merced we'll generate 0.04784 pounds of CO2.
So how much sludge is carried in each semi? We'll assume the worst case and say that each semi carries 80,000 lbs, the maximum weight allowed in California. Also, to keep the calculation simple, we'll also assume that the semi weighs 80,000 coming & going, even though it returns empty.
Four trucks per week at 80,000 pounds per truck is 320,000 pounds of sludge each week. This will generate 15,309 lbs of CO2 per week.
Over 52 weeks, looking at the worst case, this adds up to 796,058 lbs of CO2, which is the equivalent of 361 metric tons of CO2.
Jenny, though that sounds like a lot, it's less than 0.02% of the 20,000 metric tons of CO2 currently generated. Bottom line: the environmental cost of trucking the sludge is negligible compared to the savings.
To address your last question, Palo Alto is not getting stuck with the sludge. It's a valuable commodity that Synagro can't seem to get enough of. They make money selling the pelletized sludge all over the country, some of which may come back to Palo Alto, though the article didn't talk about tht. The rest goes to EBMUD, which also sees it as a resource to power their operation.
Milwaukee certainly has no problem getting rid of theirs, having sold 9,000,000,000 pounds of the pellets over 85 years. It's a premium product that gardeners can't seem to get enough of because it improves the quality of their soil and the crops they grow.
This is a classic win-win-win situation and I'm a bit amazed that you resist it so strongly.


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Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 4, 2014 at 7:42 pm

Steve,

It is four trucks per DAY (for sludge) compared to one truck per WEEK for ash. You need to multiply your numbers by at least 20.

The city says that eliminating the incinerators will save about 2400 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, only about a 10% annual reduction from current levels. I doubt that they are including the pelletizing costs and transportation.

There are other approaches:

"So far, not everyone is convinced that anaerobic digestion is the way to go. Dennis Scherzer, a board member at the East Palo Alto Sanitation District, is among the skeptics. At the April 29 meeting of the City Council, he urged Palo Alto officials not to pursue an anaerobic digester and to instead consider other "tried and true" technologies such as gasification, which uses heat and oxygen and/or steam, and pyrolysis, which uses heat." (from the original article)

I believe I have read that such alternative approaches can drastically reduce the volume of the sludge, eliminate the toxics and produce energy. We would not need to worry about disposing of the sludge with such approaches. I am not an expert on these alternative ways of handling sludge, but I think they should be seriously considered. Palo Alto should not take on the serious possibility of liability, by trying to process the sludge into compost. If Menlo Park wants to accept the potential liability, that is up to them.


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Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 4, 2014 at 11:10 pm

Jenny -
If you read my previous post you'd know that I accounted for all four truckloads each week, 52 weeks a year. The bottom line doesn't change: the trucks of sludge will emit less than 0.02% of the CO2 currently emitted. They are less than a rounding error.
In addition to ignoring the math, you also are ignoring the benefits of this free fertilizer and the huge savings in CO2 emissions that result from not having to produce chemical fertilizers. Please address that cost.
Palo Alto is not proposing to process their sludge into compost - that is my suggestion - so there is no liability. They instead plan to send the sludge to Merced where Synagro will pelletize and sell it. No liability, only a much cheaper, more environmental solution to the current problem.


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Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 5, 2014 at 8:57 am

Steve,

Read the article, again. It is four trucks per day, not per week. This means 20-28 trucks per week. Then do your arithmetic.

If you can convince the certified organic farmers that sludge products are OK, then I will back off of my concerns. Why do you think the organic farmers are so concerned, Steve?


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Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 5, 2014 at 11:10 am

Jenny -
You're right. I missed that it's 4 trucks per DAY. It doesn't really change the conclusion though since 7 X 0.016% = 0.11%. This is still less than one tenth of one percent of the CO2 currently generated - essentially a rounding error. Plus the sludge ends up being a net benefit in that it enriches the soils it ends up in. Perhaps down the road, Synagro may find it more economical to set up a plant in the bay area to process the sludge from the many sanitary districts that ring the bay, thus reducing the cost, both financial & environmental, of hauling the sludge to Merced.

Organic farmers are not as concerned as you might believe. Check out this organic gardening forum where one of the organic gardeners argues strongly for the use of Milorganite. Web Link He actually went to the trouble of having both his tap water and the Milorganite tested at a lab that does work for EPA. Here's his description of the results:
"I've been using the stuff for years and had an independent lab test it that concluded the tap water had more contaminants in higher concentrations than Milorganite. Why is the so called organic movement luke warm on this product? Is it just the fact it is human poop or does it go deeper, pardon the pun."
I think he's put his finger on it. Some people just can't get over the origin of the pellets (human poop) and no matter how safe & beneficial the product is, they will resist using it. Seems this might describe your resistance to it as well.


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Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 5, 2014 at 1:28 pm

There are multiple toxins of concern:

Web Link

The take home message from this article is to avoid buying organic fertilizers that contain human sewage sludge products.


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Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 5, 2014 at 1:58 pm

If Synagro is such a great business, why is it bankrupt? Maybe people, concerned about the toxics in its stews, aren't buying the poop?

Web Link


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Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 5, 2014 at 2:53 pm

Nice try but nope, Synagro Technologies Inc., the largest biosolids and organic residuals recycler in the US, came out of bankruptcy last August. Worth $480 Million Synagro serves more than 600 municipal and industrial water and wastewater facilities in 34 states from Connecticutt ti California. And now it's about to serve Palo Alto too.


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Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 5, 2014 at 4:22 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Interesting back and forth, perhaps I can shed some light on the situation, as I have been involved in these deliberations since 2009.

Everybody poops, so we need to deal with it somehow. All the sewage pipes in Palo Alto, Stanford, East Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills lead to the Regional Water Quality Control Plant (RWQCP). The RWQCP is in Palo Alto, which owns and operates the plant for the partner agencies.

Currently the solids are separated out and incinerated. The incinerator is aging and reaching the end of its useful life, and if it fails, The RWQCP has no backup system in place, and would very quickly be in deep doo-doo.

The City of Palo Alto has undergone a very long and careful process of considering and evaluating its options. Options include:
0. The current operation emits 3,057 Metric Tons of CO2 and has a 20-year Net Present Value (NPV) cost of $98M
1. Replacing the old incinerators with new, more modern Fluidized Bed Incinerators that recapture a lot of the energy. This was estimated to cost ~$270 Million (I think just capital cost, not operational), and while generating less CO2 would still generate a lot.
2. Build a dewatering and load-out facility, and truck the sewage solids either ~130 miles to the Synagro facility to be composted, or ~40 miles to Oakland's EBMUD which has extra Anaerobic Digestion capacity. This has a capital cost of ~$12 Million. The 20-year Net Present Value cost of the Synagro option is $98.7 Million (including sending food and yard materials to composting in Gilroy, 53 miles away).
3. Build an Anaerobic Digestion (AD) facility to generate methane from digested sewage. The methane can be used to generate electricity which could be sold to the community or to the RWQCP to help offset and provide emergency power to the RWQCP's considerable electricity use. The costs for AD include costs for sending sewage & food scraps to AD (most food waste now goes to landfill, some to composting) and composting of yard trimmings. The city received two bids for this option, costing $97M and $107M (20-year NPV), with annual Green House Gas (GHG) emissions of -3,263 and -5,291 metric tons respectively. Note the GHG numbers are negative, meaning they represent emission reductions.
4. AD for food + sewage plus composting of yard, like above but with city ownership of the AD and public financing, including the item 2 above of an interim/backup sewage dewatering and truck hauling facility, the city estimates at $89M (20-year NPV) and -5260 metric tons GHG.
5. Other technologies like Gasification or Pyrolisis, but no vendors bid for that in the recent RFP, so it's fine to say the city _should_ look at that, but they did and nobody bid to do it, so that's not happening.

The Council agreed with Staff and rejected the RFP bids and is relaunching a new RFP which focuses on a city-owned AD of sewage and commercial/restaurant food, and another RFP for composting of yard trimmings and likely residential food at the Measure E site next to the RWQCP.

You can find most of this information by digging around at www.cityofpaloalto.org/energycompost, and more specifically at the most recent staff report #4744 Web Link on page 6, and more details on cost calculations starting on page 13, and GHG breakdowns on page 84.


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Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 5, 2014 at 4:32 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Oh, in regards to toxins and metals, the RWQCP has had a successful program in place for years to reduce these at the source. Currently the ash is considered a hazardous material only due to its concentration of copper (from all those copper pipes in plumbing), and the concentration is a bit higher than the legal limit to be considered a haz mat because burning everything down to ash sends a bunch of stuff to the smoke stack and its scrubbers, and reduces the mass of all the organic material, so the copper that stays behind is a high concentration. But if it weren't burned to ash, then the concentration of copper would be well below the legal limits. Some of my other comments on PA Online give the links to documents which test and report the concentrations of metals, etc in the RWQCP input. Feel free to search for that. I am supportive of testing the product for pollutants, but I have not seen any evidence that the RWQCP's fertilizer output would have problematic pollutant levels.


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Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 5, 2014 at 8:16 pm

"I am supportive of testing the product for pollutants, but I have not seen any evidence that the RWQCP's fertilizer output would have problematic pollutant levels."

That's good to hear, Cedric. When will the certified organic farmers agree with you? When will Whole Foods and other markets who advertise organic products agree with you?


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Posted by Steve
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 5, 2014 at 9:02 pm

Cedric -
Thanks for jumping in and sharing your insider's viewpoint of all options under consideration. Your summary brings a few questions to mind.
1) You say say that the current operation generates just over 3,000 metric tons of CO2 per year. Yet The Weekly article claimed an annual output of 20,000 metric tons annually. How did they get this number so wrong?

2) It sounds like replacing the incinerator is not an option because of the outsize cost and continued CO2 pollution. The other options put out for bid all came back at around $100 million over 20 years. Was the cost the reason they were rejected or were there technical problems.

3) Sounds like the city is leaning toward a city owned and operated Anaerobic Digestion system with methane the ultimate product to power electric generators for city use. What happens to the remaining solids? I assume that there has to be something left. Specifically, what happens to the fertilizer component - the nitrogen/phosphate/iron that makes the sludge product attractive to Synagro? Is this simply lost in the process? This, if you've read the full argument between Jenny and me, is what I've seen as the prime value of the biosolids. Does Synagro pay cities anything for the biosolids they contribute or is their product only economical if the sludge is free?



4)


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Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 6, 2014 at 1:12 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Jenny, It doesn't really matter when all the Organic farms will take sewage-derived fertilizer, because unfortunately such a small percentage of crops are organic. If we ever evolve our society such that organic is the norm rather than the exception, perhaps by that time we will have also evolved to not send toxics and metals down the drain. At such a time, a truly sustainable practice is to recycle all our nutrients back into the soil, as sustainable agriculture has done for thousands of years before the industrial era messed things up.

Steve, in response to your questions:

1) I'm not sure why there is that discrepancy in the GHG figures, perhaps the basis for what is considered 0 GHG is different in the latest analysis, however I note that the delta between the options is still on the same order of magnitude. Even though I served on the 2009 Compost Task Force, I consider the more authoritative estimates for GHG emissions to be those derived in the subsequent Feasibility Study (Web Link) which was more rigorous and thoroughly vetted by city staff, consultants, and the community. In that study, you can look, for instance, at page 13, where 'alternative 3' (22,716 MT) is closest to the status quo, and 'case 1c' (14,207 MT) is closest to the the option of AD for food & sewage and compost for yard. (Even though in case 1c yard and residential food would have been digested, and will now instead be composted, It is probably pretty close to similar GHG numbers because IIRC there is about 2x more commercial food than residential food and it is higher energy value (more fats and grease), and the planned AD plant would be more efficient with a pre-pended Thermal Hydrolysis Process (THP) which breaks open the cell walls allowing the Anaerobic Bacteria to get in there and release more energy.) So the delta between the comparable Feasibility Study options is about -8,500MT, whereas the delta between the status quo and the planned process from the latest RFP's analysis is about -8,300MT, which is surprisingly close.

2) The reasons to reject the bids and re-bid were legal and financial. The original RFP was crafted with the idea that we would get bids for newer technologies like Gasification or Pyrolysis (which Jenny said she would like the city to consider). Since these are newer technologies, the city was concerned that they might still have kinks and tweaks to work out, and so crafted the RFP with the notion of private ownership and operation, such that the private party which bid on the design/build would also carry the risk if anything didn't work as planned. However, it turned out that none the 3 viable bidders (I don't recall, maybe also none of the initial 7 bidders) bid for these technologies. Instead the qualified options were shipping it all away (Synagro bid) or doing one of two forms of AD for food & sewage and composting yard.
Since AD is an established technology (and the predominant technology at least in California for sewage), the city staff felt they could get better pricing if this component were city owned and operated, and it would reduce confusion having one central authority managing all processes within the RWQCP (rather than having a private operator working a subset of the public RWQCP). While Harvest had a more holistic bid meeting the desires of the community (as judged by the passage of Measure E) for local processing of everything, Cambi/WeGeneration proposed a more energy efficient technology set for the AD components (Thermophylic Hydrolysis (THP) + AD). Harvest and WeGeneration were willing to combine their bids and negotiate for shorter timeframe for city ownership. However, it was felt that the city would open itself up to a legal challenge if they were to go this route, because other companies could say they would have bid for a project with city ownership, or they could say it is unfair to allow these two companies to change their bids to suit the city, after the closure of the bid period.

3) My recollection is that one of the two bid AD processes would produce a dried (using recaptured heat) pelletized fertilizer while the other was perhaps composted or just dewatered to produce a more loamy fertilizer. Page 88 of the staff report #4744 (Web Link) has a neat diagram for the THP+AD process which shows land application of the resultant solids. (My recollection is that in the city's Feasibility Study of 2011/2012, sales for sewage-derived compost was set at $0/ton, but I think the AD bidders anticipated non-zero but fairly negligible revenue for such sales). In the Synagro case as well, the sales of fertilizer partially (probably marginally) offset but do not fully cover processing costs. As such, municipalities delivering sludge pay a tipping fee (measured in $/ton delivered) to Synagro, which covers most of the cost to process.


It is important to note that whatever the city does, there will always be cost to handling municipal organics (sewage, food, and yard). Whether it is Landfilled, Incinerated, Gasified, Digested, and/or Composted, there is a significant cost. If we just did nothing, there is ongoing operational cost and significant risk of equipment failure with high cost to deal with such a failure (emergency trucking away of an endless poop stream). As such, it is a question of what will people actually bid to construct, and of those options, how do we optimize for least cost and least ecological impact. I think the city is on a good path for optimizing towards an environmentally and economically responsible solution.


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Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 6, 2014 at 3:56 pm

"The original RFP was crafted with the idea that we would get bids for newer technologies like Gasification or Pyrolysis (which Jenny said she would like the city to consider). Since these are newer technologies, the city was concerned that they might still have kinks and tweaks to work out, and so crafted the RFP with the notion of private ownership and operation, such that the private party which bid on the design/build would also carry the risk if anything didn't work as planned. However, it turned out that none the 3 viable bidders (I don't recall, maybe also none of the initial 7 bidders) bid for these technologies. Instead the qualified options were shipping it all away (Synagro bid) or doing one of two forms of AD for food & sewage and composting yard."

Cedric, I used to do RFPs for a major corporation. It was clearly understood that the bidders could be constrained, so that only the bidder that my bosses wanted could be entertained. We used to describe them as "chase aways". In this case, if the RFP required a 40:1 reduction in final volume, as well as direct energy production, as well as destruction or isolation of all toxics, as well as no off site regular trucking, as well as no compost with toxics embedded in them, then the obvious choices would be some type of gasification.

Crafting an RFP is one of the oldest tricks in the bureaucratic playbook. The problem is that it may not be the best for Palo Alto.


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Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 6, 2014 at 6:48 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Sure, you could craft the RFP to be super constraining and force Gasification to be the only available option, but, as you say, this would not necessarily be the best for Palo Alto. Had they done that, perhaps they would have gotten a bid for Gasification, as such bidders would figure they had no competition, but then the price may have been too high.

Conversely I do no believe that the RFP was crafted in such a way as to subtly exclude Gasification. Staff members who worked on the RFP have told me they had hoped that Gasification bids would be among those received. If the city secretly didn't want Gasification, then why require in the RFP private own/operate (to handle increased risk of newer techs) when public own/operate is cheaper for the city? If Gasification vendors where scared off by the private-ownership model, then maybe they are not so sure about the reliability of their technology after all, despite all the hype.

Staff and the the public and Council generally wanted a diversity of competing technologies to be proposed in the RFP, which was therefore written to accommodate that. Unfortunately, the only qualifying bids received were export it all away, and AD. Thus, given the current state of the marketplace and of technology, the new RFP is tailored now towards AD.


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Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 6, 2014 at 7:56 pm

" If Gasification vendors where scared off by the private-ownership model, then maybe they are not so sure about the reliability of their technology after all, despite all the hype."

Cedric, the other page, that I did not mention, is the political fix that is in, regarding RFPs. If a potential vendor did not see a fair political landscape, then there will be no bids coming from them.

I doubt that the alternative vendors, including gasification, were scared off by the private venue, but I can imagine they were scared off by the Palo Alto political environment.

Cedric, even though I am a woman, I am not na´ve. I have seen many tough internal political schemes, and I am telling you that I don't buy your
description. You just don't ring true to me. My husband calls me a tough broad, and I think I am. I can smell a rat, when I see one.

This entire scheme for RFPs smells like a rat to me. Our poop should be dealt with in the most efficient and effective way.


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Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 6, 2014 at 8:46 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Well, you are entitled to your opinions, rat smelling and all. I think if you met me in person versus emotionless posting, your distrust of my earnestness would melt away. Another day, perhaps.


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Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 6, 2014 at 8:57 pm

Cedric, are you saying that the Palo Alto political environment was neutral, regarding gasification? It just doesn't ring true to me, given what I have seen over my career. My view is that the political fix is in.


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