Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 4, 2011

City should allow digester discussion to play out

Environmental spat should not hold up consideration of high-tech way to compost food and yard waste

Opposing sides in the battle to build a high-tech composting plant on what will become a part of Byxbee Park when the city's landfill closes both will find plenty of information to stir up their supporters in the preliminary feasibility study released last week by the city's consultant.

The spat is between environmental camps — one that believes nine acres of the park should not be sacrificed, even if it is used to reduce greenhouse gases — and the other that argues just as strongly that Palo Alto should build the plant to process its own garden trimmings and food scraps rather than truck them to Gilroy. It is also possible that the city could close down its sewage incinerator — one of only two left in the state — and process the sludge in the digester.

The City Council is also far from unified about the project, voting 5-4 last year to go ahead with the $250,000 study by staff and consultants.

The preliminary initial study concluded that it will be significantly more expensive to operate the digester than to haul the city's compost away. The example put the Gilroy option at $70 per ton, compared to more than $100 per ton for a digester in one scenario and considerably more in two others. Supporters of the digester plant immediately noted that the $70 a ton estimate for trucking did not include an inflation factor for gasoline costs, while the consultant did include a 30 percent contingency for a digester project.

But the immediate issue is less about money than about a possible November ballot measure to carve out a nine-acre piece of dedicated Byxbee Park land to use for the digester. Forces led by former Mayor Peter Drekmeier are circulating an initiative petition to put the question on the ballot, while those who follow Emily Renzel, the former city council member, who is a fervent supporter of city parks, are hoping to keep it off the ballot.

For the city to build the digester as proposed, voters must first agree to rescind the parkland status of the nine-acre site, or about 9 percent of Byxbee Park, so that the site is an option.

There are good arguments on both sides of what has become a contentious issue in Palo Alto's environmental community. Drekmeier and Renzel have both played major roles in championing environmental causes here over the years. And it is unfortunate that on this issue they are not able to reach an understanding that would support allowing the digester discussion to go forward.

A November referendum will give both sides plenty of time to persuade voters that their position is the right one. Much more information on the digester plant will be available, and there will be time to educate the public on this high-tech process that is being used now in Europe but has not been adopted in the U.S.

The Utilities Advisory Commission praised the digester's environmental promise at a Wednesday night meeting, but agreed that the project would have to make financial sense to get their support.

We're not yet convinced that it will make financial sense to proceed with the digester plan, but we are persuaded that there is value in creating the option of using the nine-acre site through a ballot measure.

As landfills fill up and transportation becomes more expensive, it is time for cities like Palo Alto to look for waste-disposal methods that have a much lower environmental impact. The digester technology uses bacteria to almost magically make garden clippings, food scraps and biosolids disappear while producing methane that could be used as natural gas or converted to electricity. This is a solution that should have appeal in Palo Alto, where caring for the environment is high on everyone's agenda.

With the council divided it may fall upon citizens to decide this important issue. The digester would take away only nine acres of the 126 acres that will make up Byxbee Park after the landfill is closed next year. In addition, there are nearly 2,000 acres in the adjacent Baylands. When viewed in this context, setting aside nine acres to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 15,000 metric tons per year is a price we believe the community should be more than willing to pay, if studies conclude it is economically feasible.

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