Palo Alto set to debate future of old landfill site | January 11, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 11, 2013

Palo Alto set to debate future of old landfill site

City to consider how much of the Byxbee Park site should be left open for proposed compost plant

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto's landfill in Byxbee Park officially closed in the summer of 2011, but the defunct facility continues to puzzle environmentalists and local officials, who will consider this week what to do with the former landfill's site at the end of Embarcadero Road.

The property has been a source of heated controversy in the green community in recent years, with many conservationists urging the city to honor its promise of capping the landfill and allowing the acreage to revert to public parkland. State regulations also mandate that the city cap the facility to prevent contamination of the surrounding area from methane and leachate.

But another contingent of environmentalists believes that a 10-acre section should house a new composting plant. The landfill previously housed the city's composting operation, and its closure has forced the city to ship its yard waste to the Z-Best facility in Gilroy.

This coming week, the City Council will wade into the messy green debate when members consider how much of the landfill site, if any, the city should cap. The council will also review at its Monday night meeting the staff's request for proposals for vendors who could potentially build a new anaerobic digester, a plant that converts compost, food waste and yard scraps into energy. The request will also allow companies to propose options for exporting these categories of waste for processing elsewhere.

With the city still studying the potential costs and impacts of an anaerobic digester, staff is reluctant to cap the entire site, particularly if the city would later have to disturb the area and remove the cap to make way for the waste-to-energy facility.

In a new report from the Public Works Department, staff is recommending capping 34 acres of the 51-acre site and leave 17 acres uncapped. The uncapped area, according to the report, would be big enough to accommodate the new plant and ancillary operations. Other options on the table include postponing all capping as well as capping the entire acreage.

Former Councilwoman Emily Renzel, a staunch conservationist who opposes the construction of a facility in Byxbee Park, is lobbying for the latter option. In a letter to the council, Renzel urged officials to cover the landfill as soon as possible with the aim of having the entire 126-acre Byxbee Park reopened to the public by 2014. The city had already capped 75 acres.

"It is time for us to complete the capping of Byxbee Park and make this a park like Bedwell Baylands Park in Menlo Park and Shoreline Park in Mountain View," Renzel wrote. "For all of Palo Alto's talk of environmental leadership, this is one area where we have failed abysmally."

But this option would come at a price, particularly if the city elects to proceed with the new compost plant. Staff estimates that removing and reconstructing the cap to make way for the plant could cost up to $3 million. The staff report notes that the "selection of any of these landfill capping options will not limit the potential size or functionality of an energy/compost facility because some cap can be removed if a larger facility is selected.

"However, options that result in the removal and subsequent reconstruction of cap acreage would increase the overall development costs for the energy/compost facility," the report states.

The proposal for the compost plant gained momentum in November 2011, when voters overwhelmingly approved Measure E, which allowed the city to "undedicate" 10 acres of Byxbee Park to make way for the new compost plant. Leading proponents, including former Mayor Peter Drekmeier and attorney Walt Hays, have argued that keeping composting local would be better for both the environment and for the city's bottom line than exporting the waste.

If the city agrees with the staff and opts to cap 34 of the 51 acres, Palo Alto would still need to get permission from various regulatory agencies to proceed with the facility. In August, the city received permission from the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health to postpone capping the 51 acres until the 2013 construction season, according to the Public Works Department. The California Regional Quality Control Board and the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery also signed off on that postponement.

Palo Alto would need another extension if it chooses to leave 17 acres uncapped. If this extension were not granted, the city would be required to proceed with capping the entire 51 acres.

The staff report argues 17 acres would accommodate a 5-acre facility and its ancillary operations. Such a facility, the report states, "is the most feasible from an engineering perspective." The option also "eliminates the need for any 'recapping' costs for a 5-acre site without drastically changing the character of the landfill's grading plan, and it opens up an additional 34 acres of parkland."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Posted by study-the-plant-now, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 11, 2013 at 11:51 am

It is time for a feasibility study and cost analysis of a new composting plant. That was my understanding of the "un-dedicate 10 acres" vote that we took. If a plant is feasible and cost effective, then Council should take a vote - or put it to the citizens. If not, then finish the park. But in the meantime, lets not cap it all and add an additional $3M to the potential cost of the composting plant! In my opinion, that would be foolish and financially irresponsible.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 11, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Cap it and complete the park. That composting plant will be studied and studied to the great profit of the consultants doing the study, but no fiscally sane city council would ever build it.

Posted by alex, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 11, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Why do we have to use the land for composting? Can't we do composting on some other land that is in a less beautiful spot?

Posted by Timothy Gray, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 11, 2013 at 1:41 pm

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I am re-posting the following from February 2012.

Compost or Get Off the Pot -- Letter to the Editor published in February 2012

Letter to the Editor written in February 2012 and published in three local papers:

"Now that Measure E has opened the door to using 10 acres of park land for a Compost Facility, residents must watch the City's actions closely to make sure that a decision is made quickly, and if the real financial merit of the plant is not feasible -- make sure that the park land is rededicated.

All concerned residents must insist that our leaders respond to the following questions:

1. How do we make sure that the "Cost" (market value) of the ten acres of real estate is fully accounted for in any financial feasibility study?

2. How do we assure that there is absolute integrity in all the assumptions used to evaluate the project (real financial merit vs. pipe dreams)?

3. How do we keep study costs to a minimum (i.e. if it is clear that the anaerobic digester does not meet financial return goals, stop the detailed study and return the park land)?

Without this scrutiny, we will spend money and delay a precious park resource without delivering any value.
Watchdog efforts like these are bad news for those hoping that there might be a loophole to convert the land to another purpose once the memory of implied promises have faded.

That promise: The City will provide an innovative Composting plant that returns a positive financial return (including the market value of the land) or return it to park land and proceed with the long-delayed recreational vision for our water-front. Got accountability? Compost or get off the pot.

Timothy Gray

(Tim's note: -- Nothing has happened and there is more and more information that indicates that there was never a real chance of this technology delivering on the promise, and strong indications that it was sold to the public to feel good about caring for the planet, but that it has no real basis is the practical world. We all want to be green, however, we really must deliver the promise of the project or get the land returned to the Parklands. We really have to Compost or get off the pot!)

Anything less than a speedy and efficient evaluation is simply a manipulation. Let's let the number reveal the truth!"

Posted by registered user, Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 11, 2013 at 1:51 pm

There is no other site in the city large enough and suitable for composting, which requires about 5-7 acres to handle our yard waste, maybe more if we also composted food waste. A major direction given to the 2009 Compost Blue Ribbon Task Force was to "consider parkland as a last resort", i.e. try to find a site to compost our organics that is not on the landfill. I was on that Task Force and we considered all the available sites, but no other site was suitable. We proposed an unused corner of the airport which we were told the airport community had not been approved to use, but the airport community pointed to plans for its use and the Council nixed that site, realizing in the end that the landfill site, adjacent to the sewage treatment plant, was the only feasible location.

By February 2014 we should know how much of the 10 acre site is needed. The city will soon be sending out the Request For Proposals (RFP) to get prices and acreage needs for various technologies to handle the city's organic wastes, and the responses will have been received and evaluated within about a year from now. The previous Financial Feasibility Study indicated that local handling of our organics could save the city as much as $2M/year, over 20 years. The RFP will give us accurate figures on which to base a decision.

The article inaccurately implies that Anaerobic Digestion is the only technology considered by the RFP for local organics handling. However the staff report says, "The RFP asks proposers to provide onsite solutions using anaerobic digestion (wet and/or dry) or gasification technologies. Only technologies proven at full scale will be considered."

Gasification is a broad category of non-combustion, high-temperature processes for converting organics to energy (Web Link). It includes Plasma Arc (which Craig Laughton frequently advocates on this forum), as well as Biochar, which I currently favor. Biochar (Web Link) can be used as a soil amendment to improve fertility, reduce water use, and sequester carbon, all important attributes today.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 11, 2013 at 4:11 pm

What about the 6 acres from 27 University northward to Palo Alto Avenue? That area between the tracks and El Camino is perennially torn up anyway. This would make a great City Gateway showcase eco-industrial site with railroad access so that trucking on our highways wouldn't be necessary. I bet we could fit it in under the 50-foot height limit.

Posted by Confessed Composter, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 11, 2013 at 10:01 pm

New Year's Day, my wife and I took a walk on the covered portion of the dump. Despite the cold wind, it was a great pleasure. The baylands is a wonderful part of Palo Alto. But it makes total sense to carefully consider the options to convert our natural materials to energy right here in the city, and the area the city is looking at is really the only option.

On our small property we have two--soon to be three--compost heaps. Why don't more homeowners do this? But we still contribute significant amounts of yard waste, which we'd like to see handled locally.

Let's look at these proposals fairly and objectively, keeping in mind our commitment to not shoving our waste onto other areas.

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Jan 11, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Look at who is behind this scheme- Peter and Cedric. Enough said. The project is folly and will cost us millions. The vote was in 2011 and nothing has been done yet. Too much work for some people --- easier to propose and then not follow through

Posted by CarefulPlanning, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 12, 2013 at 1:29 am

Need more info before we make a big mistake OR, perhaps figure out what we truly NEED.

Posted by registered user, Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 12, 2013 at 1:58 pm

I would love for this process to move more quickly--I've been involved since at least 2009--but it is incorrect to say that nothing has been done since Measure E's passage with 65% of the vote in November 2011.

Part of the delay was integrating these efforts with the ongoing Long Range Facilities Planning (Web Link) for the Regional Water Quality Control Plant (RWQCP, AKA sewage treatment plant). That plan was accepted by Council in July 2012.

Staff also had to figure out strategies for how to accommodate the 10 acre site within the landfill.

Another component was preparing and getting community input on the specifications for the Request For Proposals (RFP) which is going to Council Monday for approval to be issued. That can be seen as Attachement D (starting page 12) of the staff report Web Link

The public is encouraged to participate in this process and can get more information from Web Link

Posted by lazlo, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 12, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Too many managers and no leadership skills by the city manager or city council. Prepare for more "blue ribbon" committees and "management studies" with outsourcing to non-local contractors to study what other cities are doing and ending in a "need for further study" to determine if "further study is needed". Isn't a shame that we can't hire a city manager (who currently makes $500,000 in salary/compensation) who can at least show minimal leadership skills or a city council who are able to make a decision without implementing six figure outsourced studies to make even simple decisions. What a pity!

Posted by Jim, a resident of University South
on Jan 12, 2013 at 4:24 pm

A five star hotel!

Posted by alex, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 13, 2013 at 8:58 am

Cedric, thank you for the answer, or should I say, "an answer".

Personally, I would ship out the compost to another city, remote enough not to impact any other population.

Our city contributes enough, I believe to California, the USA and the world. I don't think I need to begin to list our contributions. I believe it's morally and ethically correct to ship it out.

We'd pay for it, of course, and contribute to another city in that manner. Another city obviously has an appropriate site for this. Technology will advance soon enough to make the problem moot.

Let's have a beautiful park please, for us and for all of our neighbors.

Posted by alex, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 13, 2013 at 9:05 am

Also, I forgot to add:

We could ship it out by train, which would seem cheaper to me.

Our city would then be nestled between two beautiful parks, Foothills and this one.

Environmentally, well, it's a park. How much more environmental can you be?

We simply deserve it. Everyone deserves it: the region and the world [that's environmentalism to me).

Posted by alex, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 13, 2013 at 10:02 am

I also forgot to add this:

Yes, it will cost the city money. I believe it's short-sighted to make this a limiting factor. It will obviously increase our property values and the region's.

Let's be honest and realize that the expense will be worth it, taking everything into consideration.

Posted by registered user, Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 13, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Alex, FYI, the default plan is to truck our yard and food waste 53 miles away to Southern Gilroy to be composted there. Interestingly, that trucking has fewer green house gas emmissions than sending food to the landfill, where it breaks down anaerobically releasing methane gas, 80% of which is released before equipment can be installed to collect methane. methane is 72 times more potent than CO2 on a 20-year basis, 20 times more potent than CO2 over 100 years (Web Link).

Regardless of whether or not the city locally composts, you will still have beautiful parks in the Baylands. The existing Palo Alto Baylands comprise 1,940 acres (Web Link). Byxbeee Park, consisting of Palo Alto's former and just closed landfill, is 126 acres. The 10 acre Measure E site rezoned just over 8 of those 126 acres for compost/energy (the remaining 2 acres may have been part of the sewage treatment plant). So the compost plant, if all 10 acres are used, takes away less than 7% of Byxbee, touches none of the baylands, and leaves over 2,000 acres of parkland by the bay.

The advantage of local composting may be cost, but would also provide local compost to residents and the city, can generate energy, or if biochar were created could sequester CO2.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 13, 2013 at 6:51 pm


"... for compost/energy"

Are you including human sewage sludge in your compost mix?

If not, where will the current human sewage sludge go?

You and Peter D. promised to fix the human sewage sludge problem. What is you answer?