News

Palo Alto's compost quandary will head to voters

Coalition advocating a new waste-to-energy facility in the Baylands gathers more than 6,000 signatures, qualifying the land-use issue for the ballot

Palo Alto environmentalists who support building a new waste-to-energy plant at Byxbee Park hit a crucial milestone in their campaign Tuesday morning when they turned in more than 6,000 signatures to the City Clerk's Office, qualifying the issue for the November ballot.

The ballot measure by the Palo Alto Green Energy and Compost Initiative would "undedicate" about 10 acres in the 126-acre Byxbee Park so that the city can use the land for waste and composting operations. The land is currently slated to become parkland when the landfill on the site is retired next year and a citywide vote is necessary to change its land-use designation.

Carolyn Curtis, who led the signature-gathering campaign, earned cheers and applause from about 25 people who gathered in front of City Hall to commemorate and celebrate the group's accomplishment. The initiative needed 4,356 signatures to qualify the land-use issue for the ballot. It turned in 6,023 signatures.

Curtis said the group's signature drive received an enthusiastic response from the community, with some residents who don't usually get involved in civic affairs offering their assistance. The group also demonstrated, she said, that "we work, we get results and we know what we're doing."

Former Mayor Peter Drekmeier and Walt Hays, an environmentalist, both addressed the group and extolled the potential virtues of a local anaerobic-digestion plant, which would potentially process the city's sewage sludge, food scraps and yard trimmings and convert them to energy. The plant would also allow the city to halt its current practice of incinerating sewage sludge, Hays said.

Hays, an attorney, also addressed a recent challenge from three conservationists, Tom Jordan, Emily Renzel and Enid Pearson, who filed a complaint with the State Lands Commission calling for the agency to reassert its ownership of the Byxbee Park land and nip Palo Alto's plans in the bud. The city and the state have long quibbled over who owns the Baylands park and, as a compromise, the city currently leases the property from the state at no cost.

Hays said that even if the state is the official owner, the initiative's goal of putting a waste-to-energy facility in Byxbee Park is consistent with the State Lands Commission's goal of encouraging conservation and reduction of greenhouse gases.

"They already said that what we're trying to do is completely compatible with the public trust," Hays said.

The petition would make it possible for the city to use the 10-acre parcel of Byxbee Park for a new facility after Palo Alto's landfill closes next year. The city is currently slated to ship its yard waste to Gilroy and its food scraps to San Jose once the local landfill is shut down.

The new petition would not commit the city to building an anaerobic digester or any other waste facility at the site, but it would open up the needed land for such a facility. The 10-acre site is next to the Regional Water Quality Control Plant, which Drekmeier and other initiative leaders say make it perfectly suitable for processing sewage waste, yard waste and food scraps.

Meanwhile, the City Council is still analyzing the potential costs of the new facility. Last year, the council commissioned a study to consider various options for disposing local waste after the landfill closes. The council is scheduled to discuss the preliminary results of the feasibility study at its March 21 meeting.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by David
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 15, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Congratulations to the group for getting this important issue on the ballet. Un-dedicating open space land does take the approval of voters, but it will take a good and balanced turn out by voters to decide this issue. I'm afraid that this decision during an off year election will not draw a fair representation of citizens. This will likely be decided by the environmental camps from each side of the issue. Those that entice the most voters should come out the victor, unless it drags into a lawsuit.


Like this comment
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 15, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

This is a good moment for Palo Alto. We can celebrate the willingness of 6000 citizens to carry this discussion forward. I don't prejudge the outcome, but now we have shown the breadth of interest in doing appropriate steps for the management of our towns waste.

Any time I see the crowded freeways I wonder how any community could further clog the roads hauling sludge, trimmings and food waste when it is a local resource. Global events continue the relevance of de-emphasizing non-sustainable fuels, and choosing instead to replace this with locally generate energy.

The effort appears to be a good municipal investment. Read Cedric's analysis of how this project offers to build the most economically sound infrastructure - one that is not measured in being cheapest at the first year, but over the course of the investment.

Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by Scrooge
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 16, 2011 at 10:37 am

Don't put it to a vote until we know how much it will cost.


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Posted by One or Two Digesters
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 16, 2011 at 11:16 am

From what I can tell, most people are in agreement that there should be an anaerobic digester for our sewage at the treatment plant instead of burning the sewage. The output of this sewage digester contains toxic materials not suitable for putting on our gardens. But some farmers use it as fertilizer. There was a proposal, fortunately shot down, to allow organic foods to be fertilized with sewage sludge. I understand that is land within the current treatment plant for a small anaerobic digester that can handle the sewage plant output. We don't need to use the existing landfill site to handle the sewage treatment plants needs.

Where there is a divergence of opinion is whether the compost should also have an anaerobic digester, and whether it should be the same digester or a different one.

With the current compost facility being closed, if compost is no longer processed locally, the compost would have to be transported to somewhere else. It's likely then that the compost would be sold to farmers near the compost facility. Indeed, much of our compost now is transported to farmers because a lot more of it is generated than can be used locally. And I understand that the city's compost needs to have soil amendments added because it is of relatively poor quality, but much better quality than sewage sludge.

In contrast, Palo Alto could build a separate anaerobic digester for the compost alone. That would produce energy touted as a benefit. It's not clear how much of the digested compost would be used locally, compared with shipping it to farmers. It's also not clear about the quality of the digested compost, and whether it would be better than the current city compost. The cost of having two digesters is much more than having only one. It's not clear whether the proponents include the capital cost of two digesters or not. Also more land is needed for two digesters.

Another alternative is to have one larger anaerobic digesters for both our sewage and our compost. This reduces the land and cost compared with one digester. But it would mean that the sewage sludge would contaminate our compost. So the combined digested sewage sludge and compost would be much less useful for our gardens. Most likely all of it would have to be trucked to farms for use.

So when comparing digesting compost, we have to understand whether the compost and sewage sludge are being digested together or separately, and where the resulting materials would go.


Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 16, 2011 at 12:42 pm

What the people who are representing us on City Council are not telling you is that this is a risky project which will require regional support due to the covenant on the land usage. This means that the taxpayers of Palo Alto will pay for outsiders and will be a bad choice in use of Palo Alto tax dollars. The real facts are not pretty. Palo Alto needs to be fiscally conservative and risk adverse.


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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 16, 2011 at 3:32 pm

curmudgeon is a registered user.

Apparently few people have read the actual text of the initiative. It would remove about 10 acres from Byxbee Park and keep it out of the park for 10 years, with no mandate to build a digester-power plant (or any other specific facility) on it, or to put the land back in the park if the digester proposal fails. The city could use the land forever for whatever it wants, and I'll let your imagination guess what it could do with 10 freebie acres.

There is no mandate to replace the 10 acres taken from Byxbee Park with an equivalent area, despite what the iniative backers have hinted. This looks to me like a well-disguised municipal land grab fronted by a former mayor with a following, plain and simple.

For reference, 10 acres is about the size of Eleanor Pardee Park, the one where they just cut down the trees. It's 5 times the area of Johnson Park in Downtown North.


Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 16, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Anaerobic digestion (AD) is an inefficient process. It is NOT green, when all factors are considered, including transport of contaminated compost to local (or not so local) farmers. It requires a relatively large industrial footprint...this means giving up 10 acres of park land compared to more efficient precesses which require a much reduced industrial footprint.

There is a core group of true believers, who have come together to push AD. They never really explored alternative (like plasma arc, which is a much better solution). In short, this is a land grab by a crew of "green" fantatics, who are principally concerned with political power. They don't have any honest interest in providing a realistic solution to locally-produced waste issues. That is shame, becasue there is a real issue at hand (don't send your waste donwstream), but this current crew could care less...they just want power.

I will vote against their initiave, because it is not a real solution to a real problem. I once said, on this forum, that, "it (AD) is better than nothing". Upon reflection, and considering the total cost, I now believe that AD is worse than nothing.

If we cannot come up with rational solutions, then we should not confuse the issue with non-rational solutions.

Vote NO on this AD measure...it is a very expensive turkey, both in land and treasure.


Like this comment
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 16, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

Hi Curmudgeon,

It is quite easy to read the initiative, and see how the land is dedicated:

Web Link

The initiative is very specific with what the use of the land is to be - here is the change in the Comprehensive Plan - the text needed to match the context of the plan:

“ Like the Recycling Center, the original composting operation was located in the Landfill Area and must vacate its current site to accommodate the landfill‟s final grading and conversion to (1) a 10-acre site for conversion of organic wastes by biological and/or other equally environmentally protective technology; and (2) pastoral park in the remaining area."

We were advised by the City Attorney not to do a dual purpose initiative - we could not remove parkland AND mandate the construction of this biologic conversion facility. I believe that it is better anyway to allow the Council the discretion to determine the appropriate facility and financing, rather than to try to mandate that too in the initiative.

As to the reversion, the land will always be under the Councils control, and if the project were not to be pursued, could be reverted to Parkland after 10 years. We set that horizon as we knew there was engineering, permitting and construction in the future. However, you misrepresent the Initiative when you choose to indicate that the land could be put to any use after 10 years. Again, I cite:

"Ten years from the passage of this Initiative, the City Council may rededicate any portion of the Property not utilized for the purposes of this Initiative to parkland."

This campaign did not mandate additional parkland as that does not require an initiative process, that is well within the duty of City Council to accomplish. It is not in the purview of City Council to remove parkland (even on a dump) - and hence that is why we have conducted the initiative.

There are many more involved in this effort than just the former Mayor, though we are very well served by his leadership and skills. You will find thousands of Palo Altans who value the potential to lead in sustainability with innumerable other benefits of education, business attractiveness and fiscal responsibility.


Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 16, 2011 at 5:07 pm

curmudgeon is a registered user.

Mr. Wenzlau

Thank you very much for confirming that the initiative does not mandate construction of the much-ballyhooed digester plant on the 10 acres it would remove from the Palo Alto park system, and for clarifying that it indeed cannot mandate such. I had neglected to include that part, and I appreciate your help.

The bottom line, which you have just validated, is that the initiative backers' central promise -- a wonderful little electricity-from-methane showpiece -- has no substance in their actual initiative.

As I pointed out in my first posting, once the land is removed from park dedication, the city is free to do what it pleases with it. I believe that is the actual motivation here.


Like this comment
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 16, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

Hi curmudgeon,

As one of the parties that drafted the initiative, I am close the the motivation. Our motivation is not to provide land that the "city is free to do what it pleases with", and it is reasonably constrained within the initiative. I discussed the constraints in my early posts, but you seem to still want to characterize this as open opened. That is your choice, but Palo Alto will be bound by the more limited and focused stipulations of the initiative.



Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 17, 2011 at 9:26 am

curmudgeon is a registered user.

Mr Wenzlau

Anyone with even the most casual acquaintance with the law will tell you that it is what a law says, not what the author intended it to say, that applies in practice. If what you wrote differs from what you intended (and apparently it does), then you didn't proofread your handiwork very carefully. Evidently you are too close to your creation to analyze it objectively.

Since you have collected the signatures and submitted the result to the clerk, it is too late to change anything. Your cause will live or die with what the proposition actually says, which is what I read objectively and commented on.


Like this comment
Posted by EcoMama
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 18, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Is there an environmental impact study available yet for this facility? Compost-to-energy plants often emit tons of fungus spores into the air ... I'm as green as they come (thus the "Eco" in my handle), but I'm not sure that this type of plant is compatible with the close proximity of people who need to breathe clean air.

If I'm to support this measure, I need to see A LOT more assurances from this group on the all-around soundness of a future facility. It may be a vote *only* to free up land, but we need to see the roadmap.


Like this comment
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 18, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

EcoMama-
An environmental impact study would be generated after a project is fully defined.

Palo Alto has enjoyed 30 years of this composting operation. Your comment seems to frame this as a new impact - instead this would improve the current operation while allowing the opportunity to derive embedded energy.

As for the lack of a road map - this map has been laid out, and would continue to be laid out in the civic process: task forces, city council and other meetings. There are numerous staff reports. I imply you are not so certain you like where the map leads, and would prefer a destination south of Gilroy rather than a local destination.

As an"EcoMama" you should fully weigh the greenhouse gas, fuel that hauling our debris over 50 miles would pose. Also, the folks in Gilroy don't want our debris either. Any EcoMama would be responsive to the burden our waste poses on these more disadvantaged communities.


Like this comment
Posted by EcoMama
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 18, 2011 at 10:19 pm

Bob, I'm aware of the existing composting operation. My impression is that this plan, should it end with a processing facility, would involve significantly more compost standing around waiting for processing, then the actual processing is different. As for hauling waste to Gilroy, you're talking about a significantly less densely populated community that makes an economic profit from our waste. Yes, I am concerned about the fuel costs of hauling, and I'd like to find a better way -- but a significant increase in the amount of decaying yard waste (etc.) nearby a densely-populated college town (quite different from, say, Gilroy) isn't my idea of a better way. Admittedly, I might be missing something -- coverage on this issue hasn't exactly been thorough!


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

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