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."