Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 27, 2010

Around Town

GEARING UP ... Palo Alto's composting quandary will resurge next month, when a coalition that calls itself the Palo Alto Green Energy and Compost Initiative begins its drive to "undedicate" a 10-acre chunk of parkland at Byxbee Park — land that the coalition hopes could be used for a facility to convert food waste, yard trimmings and sewage into electricity. The group, led by former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, faces opposition from local conservationists who believe dedicated parkland should remain dedicated parkland, even if it means local compost fodder would be shipped to Gilroy. Now, the would-be undedicators are gearing up for their political drive. Literally. The group is selling the official Palo Alto Green Energy and Compost Initiative T-shirt, featuring its logo (a leaf inside a lightbulb) and an index of numbers relating to a proposed anaerobic-digestion plant. The group plans to start gathering signatures for its petition on Sept. 25 and to bring the issue to the voters in November 2011.

HAPPY GAS ... Palo Alto's gas service fell under a cloud of suspicion last year, when a former employee accused his bosses of falsifying workers' tests, prompting a federal investigation. But according to a national organization of public gas utilities, the city's gas operation is among the safest in the nation. The American Public Gas Association, a not-for-profit organization that represents about 700 utilities, awarded Palo Alto its 2009 National Safety Award. The organization recognizes utilities that have the lowest number of accidents and injuries (based on the total number of hours their employees have worked on the system). Palo Alto's safety measures include annual leak surveys that aim to detect and repair damage as early as possible, phone surveys to make sure customers understand how to stay safe around natural gas and new khaki uniforms for gas workers, made of flame-resistant materials, according to a statement from the Utilities department. "We have people who work in the field and office every day, and who may be called in at night on emergency response, facing tough challenges as they strive to ensure our customers' safety," Director of Utilities Val Fong said.

THE SMELL OF VICTORY ... A team of Stanford chemists may have just developed the Nose of the Future. If the new invention bears fruit, this new artificial nose could soon help consumers detect "everything from incipiently sour milk to high explosives," according to a Stanford news release. To make these artificial noses, chemists equipped DNA molecules with fluorescent compounds to create tiny "sensor molecules." These sensors change colors when they detect certain substances. These color-changing sensors can convey far more information than most other existing sensors, said Eric Kool, a Stanford chemistry professor and senior author of the team's research paper, which was published this week in the German journal Angwandte Chemie (Applied Chemistry). Kool said the group was "blown away" by how strong the color changes were. The scientists now hope to develop sensors that could detect a more complex range of substances and to use these DNA sensors in liquids. In the future, these sensors could potentially help scientists smell such things as cells related to diseases and toxins in the environment. "We want to sense everything," Kool said in a statement. "That's our ultimate goal."

HOUSING HUDDLES ... Palo Alto is rethinking its housing priorities, and it's looking for a little help from its residents. The city is undergoing a long and grueling update of its Housing Element, a state-mandated document that lists the city's housing needs and availability. The Housing Element is supposed to establish the city's housing strategy for the period between 2007 and 2014 (the update has taken longer then expected, as evidenced by the fact that we're now in 2010). Interested residents will have a chance to tell city officials what Palo Alto's housing goals and vision should be. The first workshop will be held from 6:30 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 31, at Gym B in Cubberley Community Center, 4000 Middlefield Road. The second workshop will be held from 6:30 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 7, in the Palo Alto Art Center Theater, 1313 Newell Road. Those planning to attend are asked to call Robin Ellner at 650-329-2603.

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