Harking back to the voters' 2011 decision to set aside 10 acres of the city's defunct landfill for a waste-to-energy plant, the Palo Alto City Council decided Monday to take a precarious path that will delay transfer of any acres of landfill to Byxbee Park for more than a year and risk fines of up to $10,000 a day for not capping the old dump.
In the 7-2 vote (Karen Holman and Greg Schmid opposed), the council passed up a recommendation from staff to cap 34 acres out of the 51, which in our view would leave plenty of space -- 17acres -- if the council were to decide next year to build an anaerobic-digester plant on 10 acres as laid out in Measure E. Instead, the council decided to make sure it had maximum space for the waste-to energy plant, worrying that if a portion of capped acreage were needed, it could cost up to $3 million to open it up again.
Staff members said if the city did cover a portion of the landfill, regulators had indicated they would be reluctant to allow the city to remove it. Capping is a state requirement to prevent harmful gases from escaping.
The approval for extending the capping deadline by 16 months must come from regulatory agencies such as the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health and the state's Regional Water Quality Control Board, as well as CalRecycle. And if the agencies don't agree, the resulting fine could be up to a hefty $10,000 a day. Council members said they would appeal to the state Legislature and even the courts if they are not granted an extension.
Emily Renzel, a former council member who supports capping the entire landfill, said the city should immediately add the property to Byxbee Park. Delaying the transfer would be a violation of the public trust, she told the council.
"Fifty years after the land has been dedicated (as a park) Palo Alto has not been very green with respect to Byxbee Park," she said.
The council had no quarrel with the timeline in the report. It would provide vendors until August to submit proposals to develop an anaerobic digester facility that would turn waste, yard trimmings, food scraps and sewage into methane gas that could be converted into electricity. If it performs as well as promised by its advocates, like former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, it could save the city money over the long run and substantially reduce the greenhouse gases produced by trucking the garbage to San Jose or Gilroy.
But there is substantial risk in this strategy as well. The council is betting that a waste-to-energy digester can be built at a reasonable cost and that it would perform as advertised. Until the bids are opened and the plant is up and running, though, there is no certainty that a digester plant can get the job done at a price Palo Alto can afford.
Before embarking on this path and prior to passage of Measure E in November 2011, the council studied a consultant's analysis of the cost of anaerobic technology compared to hauling the waste to San Jose or Gilroy. In some ways the results were inconclusive, finding that the cheapest alternative for a local plant would be $58.6 million over 20 years. Other options were more expensive, and opponents of the disgester technology did not agree with some estimated costs for carbon and contingency fees related to the trucking option.
Drekmeier found the financial projections "very positive for anaerobic disgestion," adding that the numbers look even better if the city doesn't charge rent for the landfill site and the facility is publicly owned.
The city will know a lot more beginning in August, when the first proposals are due from companies bidding on the digester plant or hauling the waste products to San Jose or Gilroy. The bids are to be submitted so the city can compare costs, with separate portions for design, construction, financing, ownersip and operation of an energy compost facility. The city said it would take four months to evaluate the bids, until January 2014. The proposals would then go to the City Council in February 2014.
If a bid were to be accepted, the city hopes to have a system to export biosolids, food scraps and yard trimmings in operation by 2017, while a waste-energy plant to process the waste on the landfill site would need to be up and running by Jan. 1, 2019, according to the city's latest time line.