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Palo Alto's composting debate resumes tonight

City Council scheduled to give staff directions on new feasibility study for anaerobic-digestion facility

Palo Alto's heated debate over the future of local composting will resume tonight (Monday) when the City Council is scheduled to consider the city's next step in identifying the most feasible option.

The council's discussion will focus on the preliminary results of a feasibility study that evaluated the cost of an anaerobic digester -- a waste-to-energy facility that processes food waste, yard scraps and, possibly, sewage sludge and converts them to electricity. The council has already delved into the study during a four-hour public hearing on March 21. Tonight, council members are scheduled to provide staff with direction on where to go from here.

The battle over composting options was prompted by the impending closure of the city's existing compost facility at Byxbee Park. The compost operation is located at a landfill that is projected to reach its maximum facility in July, after which time the landfill would be capped and the land converted to parkland. The main argument now revolves around whether the city should ship its yard and food waste elsewhere or build a new facility.

A specially appointed task force last year recommended an anaerobic digester as the most promising technology for the city to pursue. The group Palo Alto Green Energy and Compost Initiative, led by former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, is leading a drive to make a 9-acre site at Byxbee Park available for composting. The land is currently slated to revert to parkland when the landfill closes. The ballot measure spearheaded by Drekmeier's group would "undedicate" the parkland and make it eligible for the compost operation.

At the last council discussion, which spanned about four hours, public speakers from both sides of the debate identified problems with the draft study and suggested factors that should be included in the future draft. While some praised the new technology as a way for the city to take care of its own waste and generate electricity, others called for the city not to put an industrial facility on public parkland.

Members of the public also recommended that the new study include factors such as "carbon adders" (price added for emissions), the land value of the site and the costs of maintaining or upgrading the city's incinerators, which burn sewage sludge. Staff is recommending that these factors be added to the study, along with new "export" scenarios in which a "wet anaerobic digester" replaces the incinerators at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant.

The city's consultant, Alternative Resources, Inc. (ARI), is scheduled to release the draft of the feasibility in June.

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