Palo Alto's compost debate could go to voters

Proponents of new waste-to-energy plant prepare for a political battle to keep composting local

Palo Alto's sprawling landfill in Byxbee Park wasn't always the most divisive stretch of city land.

In the 1930s, when the city moved its waste operations from an incinerator at Newell and Embarcadero Roads to the Palo Alto Baylands, the malodorous dump became a social center of sorts, according to Ward Winslow's history of Palo Alto.

"Friends and neighbors hailed one another there, and children who rode with their parents found it a treasure-hunting ground," Winslow wrote. "So did residents rummaging for just the right piece of wood or metal."

These days, as Palo Alto considers major changes to its waste-disposal system, the landfill site is both the city's biggest problem and its most viable solution, depending on which local green leader is talking about it.

The landfill, which also houses the city's composting operation and Recycling Center, is now 98 percent full and is scheduled to close in the next two years. When that happens, the land will either revert to parkland or be used to house an anaerobic-digestion plant, which would transform local yard trimmings, food waste and sewage into electricity.

The next major milestone in the compost debate will come in January, when the city releases a feasibility study evaluating the impact of the new plant. The City Council also commissioned in April an Environmental Impact Report for the proposed facility, a request that followed a bitter debate among council members and Palo Alto's large and vocal green community.

But even if the report concludes that the new facility would be feasible, the project will have to surmount a significant political obstacle. Using the land for the new waste-to-energy plant rather than a park would require a vote of the people to "undedicate" the land.

Peter Drekmeier, a former Palo Alto mayor and a leading proponent of the new facility, told the Weekly that supporters of the anaerobic-digestion plant are preparing to circulate a ballot initiative after Labor Day to undedicate the Byxbee Park site. This spring, Drekmeier, recycling pioneer Bob Wenzlau, environmentalist Walt Hays and other local green leaders launched the Palo Alto Green Energy Initiative -- an effort that promotes keeping composting local and converting waste to energy.

Proponents claim the facility would save the city about $1 million annually and in doing so, reduce the city's greenhouse gases by 20,000 tons a year. Without a local composting facility, local yard trimmings and food waste would get trucked to the SMaRT Station in Sunnyvale before proceeding to the Z-Best facility in Gilroy.

Drekmeier said the group plans to collect enough signatures to place the land-use issue on the November 2011 ballot. If the feasibility study shows that the facility wouldn't make economic sense, the group would hold off on the ballot measure, he said.

"The city has been in a chicken-and-egg situation," Drekmeier said. "Some people say they don't want to move forward with the plant if we don't have a guarantee that we can get the land for it; others say we don't want to undedicate the land if we don't have a project.

"We're going to do our part by putting the land issue on the ballot."

The group's effort could also meet a setback if the council chooses to move local elections from odd to even years, as some have proposed. Drekmeier said the group was waiting until 2011 for its ballot initiative to avoid holding a special election for park undedication. If the city moves its election to 2012, the group would have to hold a special election next year -- a process that would cost more money and require twice as many signatures for ballot placement.

To some, undedicating the parkland would be a betrayal of the city's promise to its residents.

Councilman Greg Schmid and Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa both said they oppose a composting plant at Byxbee. Former Councilwoman Emily Renzel, a leading conservationist, also opposes the plan, as had former Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto. Renzel has argued that the city's best option is to close the landfill, give the people the park they've been waiting for, and take the regional approach to recycling and composting.

"Sending the compost to Z-Best is our best economic alternative in the present time," Renzel said.

Espinosa voiced similar views at the July 20 meeting of the Finance Committee, suggesting the city consider closing its Recycling Center at the landfill as part of its effort to close the $6.3 million budget deficit in the Refuse Fund. The committee ultimately rejected the proposal.

"People don't know when they drive from Mountain View to Palo Alto and Menlo Park," Espinosa said. "We should think regionally about our approaches to waste management and recycling."

In the meantime, the local landfill is proving to be a financial hazard. Under its state permit, the city is required to have about $6 million in reserves to pay for the landfill's closure. But with refuse revenues on the steep decline, the reserve is projected to be nearly dry by the end of the current fiscal year.

The Finance Committee wrestled with this problem earlier this month and on July 20 recommended a package of proposals to reduce expenses and raise the needed funds. These include reducing the landfill operations from seven to five days a week (keeping it closed on Sundays and Mondays); raising fees for clean-soil deposits at the landfill; and increasing landfill gate fees for all materials.

The full council is scheduled to consider these proposals in September, at which point the city's greenest and most contentious debate is set to resume full force.

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Like this comment
Posted by Bryan Long
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 30, 2010 at 4:07 pm

A thank you to Gennady Sheyner for running this article, which provides a good overview except for one significant oversimplification: this is NOT a choice between having a park or having an organics recycling facility. Rather, it is a choice between having a 126 acre park with no organics facility, or a 116 acre park AND a organics facility! Readers are encouraged to visit to learn more about how an organics recycling facility could transform our organic wastes into clean energy and compost, while avoiding 20,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Why should pay others to dispose of our organic wastes when we can transform that "waste" into revenues? An organics facility is a logical step towards closing the City's budget deficit, as well as an important action to fight human-caused climate change.

Like this comment
Posted by Another alternative
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 30, 2010 at 5:03 pm

I was in support of creating a composting center at Byxbee Park because it seemed environmentally wrong to transport all our compost to Gilroy and then transport it back to PA when we needed it.

Then, towards the end of the debate at Council it was revealed that Greenwaste is planning to build a similar anaerobic digestion plant in San Mateo to which we could sell our compost. These plants are hugely expensive, and to plan to build two in fairly close proximity seems uneconomic.

No mention of this is made in the present article because I don't think certain people in Palo Alto want you to know about it. There may, however, be a good alternative for our compost close by in San Mateo.

This would not require an initiative for a ballot measure and Byxbee Park could become open space as planned.

Like this comment
Posted by Anoma Lee
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 1, 2010 at 3:50 pm

This looks like yet another needless city boondoggle. We are asked to commit to spend who knows how many millions of non-existent funds for a poorly-thought-out notion that we don't even know is feasible, and for which there will be a viable alternative in San Mateo.

Like this comment
Posted by Stop this NONSENSE
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 5, 2010 at 4:57 am

I am fascinated by the JUNK arguments given by proponents of the Composting facility.

How come most other cities in the Bay Area DO NOT RUN a composting facility??? They MUST be sending their garbage to Z-BestFacility or elsewhere !!!

Why do Palo Altans want to be a sucker to this ?

Like this comment
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 28, 2010 at 7:41 am

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

Our Palo Alto Green Energy Initiative team has been working to build our local initiative on this effort. Our group enjoys some of the best sustainability leaders in town. The draft initiative is can be reviewed, and soon the petition gathering will begin. The design of the initiative has been considerate to be responsive to the parallel efforts of the city to study the feasibility of the various conversion technologies. By having the initiative, we speed the process and save money because one, not two, environmental impact reports would be conducted. These reviews are lengthy and are best consolidated. The draft initiative is in the following link.

Web Link

The project seems in good company as San Jose is pursuing a similar strategy. They have just been award state funding from the California Energy Commission, funding that our project could reasonably anticipate. While San Jose makes progress, driving our 60,000 tons of organics down the congested 237 corridor is backwards. A third of these organics are sludges that are at our own sewage plant at the end of Embarcadero - so they are here. Also, the San Jose plant is estimated to have capacity for a mere 15% of the regional capacity, so our own "regional" water pollution plant can offer us a local solution.

Aside from all the science, I hope the emerging campaign is education and artistic. We are already finding enthusiasm from local artists to enliven the campaign. Yes, and the shirt that got coverage in the Weekly was a first for me. I will have it on at this Saturday's farmers market.

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Follow the Money
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 28, 2010 at 11:59 am

Walgreens sells nice tshirts 4 for $10. I know, not as "green" as yours, but not a ripoff.

Like this comment
Posted by Deep Throat
a resident of another community
on Aug 29, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Bob Wenzlau says the San Jose plant's capacity would be only 15% of regional capacity without defining the geographical boundaries of the region and without defining the capacity or need in tons, which is the unit of measurement used in discussions of these plants.

I believe San Jose's plant is designed for 150,000 tons and would be built in three increments of 50,000 tons each.

How do those numbers compare to San Jose's need?

What about the San Carlos plant? How big would it be in tons and what is the requirement in tons for that city's regional solid waste authority?

For example, Palo Alto's need is implied to be 60,000 tons.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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