Palo Alto to weigh differing visions for composting

City Council to hold study session on topic Monday night

More than a year after Palo Alto voters approved a plan to set aside 10 acres in the Baylands for a possible composting plant, the future of waste management remains very much up in the air, with three companies proposing disparate visions for disposing of local food scraps, yard trimmings and biosolid waste.

The three visions, which the City Council will discuss Monday night, are a response to a request for proposals the city issued last April, five months after voters passed Measure E. The measure "undedicated" 10 acres of Byxbee Park, making the land available for a waste-to-energy plant. Proponents of the measure argued that the city should keep its composting local rather than export it to another community, as has been Palo Alto's practice since after the city closed down its Byxbee Park landfill in 2011. Another major goal of the effort was to retire the obsolete incinerators that currently burn the city's biosolid waste, aka sewage sludge, and that are viewed by every side in the debate as an embarrassing blot on the city's environmentalist record.

Only two of the three proposals, however, would keep composting local and take advantage of the Measure E land. The third one, which came from a company called Synagro, would basically export all three waste streams that the city is hoping to treat locally. Synagro has as its major partner GreenWaste, the city's current waste hauler. Under its proposal, biosolids would be shipped to a facility in Merced County, about 100 miles away from Palo Alto.

The other two proposals would each utilize "wet anaerobic digestion," the type of technology most supporters of Measure E had advocated for and that had been identified as the most promising alternative by a task force that the city had commissioned in 2011 to study the issue. The process involves breaking down organic waste inside an airtight facility to create methane, which could then be used as natural gas or converted to electricity.

One proposal came from Massachusetts-based Harvest Power and would treat food scraps and biosolids in a proposed facility at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant. Yard trimmings would be treated at a 3.8-acre site that is part of the 10 acres undedicated by Measure E. This is the only proposal that would treat all three waste streams -- yard trimmings, food scraps and biosolids -- onsite.

The other proposal, by We Generation, would ship yard trimmings to Newby Island, near Milpitas. We Generation, which has as its main partner a Houston-based company called Cambi, would use a process called "thermal hydrolysis" before wet anaerobic digestion. The process breaks down cell walls within the organic materials, allowing more energy to be released during the anaerobic-digestion process.

Phil Bobel, assistant director of Public Works, said thermal hydrolysis "unlocks the energy that's inside the cells more efficiently."

Harvest Power, on the other hand, proposed combining anaerobic digestion with "thermal drying," a process that takes place after the waste is processed. The company would take the leftovers and turn it into pellets that could be used as soil supplements or fuel sources, Bobel said.

Though these are the only three private offers on the table, the council will have at least one other options to consider during its Monday discussion: none of the above. One alternative outlined in the report involves scrapping RFP responses altogether and pursuing an altogether different approach toward procuring waste-management services.

The first step in the new process would be building a facility near the water plant that focuses only on biosolids. The facility, according to the report, "would allow for the earliest decommissioning of the existing incinerator and would serve as a back-up option for biosolids."

This facility would be the first in a series that the city would pursue. These could ultimately include an anaerobic-digestion plant and a yard-trimmings operation.

The new staff report also suggests that the city might benefit from owning and operating the new waste facility. The city's request for proposals called for a partnership in which the vendor designs, builds, owns and operates the new plant. The idea at the time was to protect the city from risk as it considers new technologies.

Now, given that the main technology proposed through the RFP process -- wet anaerobic digestion -- is tried and true, staff is reconsidering the ownership model. The staff report notes that "the experience of other wastewater facilities suggests that anaerobic digesters are more cost-effective in the long-term when the public entity, like the City, is the owner-operater."


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Posted by Mry
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 6, 2014 at 1:06 pm

What about the predictions of sea level rise? The 10 acres at Byxbee Park could be under water in 30-50 years.

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Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 6, 2014 at 1:50 pm

The term "biosolids" is a euphemism for human sewage sludge. It was chosen by the EPA via a national contest, where it was looking for a more marketable term for the sludge. For Gennady Sheyner to use the term in his reporting suggests that he has bought into the EPA/local greenies propaganda. Reporters should the tell raw truth, even if it is uncomfortable.

Human sewage sludge, after anaerobic digestion, contains most of the toxins of the incoming stream. None of the RFPs address this issue. Toxins in... then toxins be slowly spread over our lawns and farms and golf courses. Let's not forget those bags of soil "compost" that contain "biosolids". Human sewage sludge "compost" is being rejected in many places, and this rejection will probably grow. The bottom line issue is: How will Palo Alto get rid of the end product?

Although there are many serious issues involved in this fiasco, perhaps the worst is " The new staff reports also suggests that the city might benefit from owning and operating the new waste facility." If one likes the Mitchell Park library, one will love the city-owned/operated anaerobic digestion industrial plant in our parklands.

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Posted by Remember the vote was to STUDY
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 6, 2014 at 1:58 pm

As usual, it appears many have forgotten that the vote was to allow time to STUDY the possibility of having this facility on this site, not a green light to build one -- many voters for the measure responded to the way it was crafted, and agreed that a small delay in the long-awaited opening of a large new area of Byxbee Park would be worth it IN CASE it was determined that it made sense (not a foregone conclusion) to have a composting factory there. For those who may think that Byxbee Park (if they even know that name) is merely an old landfill, haven't visited the park and considered the additive beauty, recreation, and ecosystem for wildlife, which would be lost were such a factory built... and the rare opportunity to preserve planned parkland as the population (remember all that new housing being built?!) of Palo Alto grows.

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Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 6, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Genady, a small correction: the Compost Task Force was not in 2011 but 2009 from March to September.

I also push back a bit on your opening statement, "...the future of waste management remains very much up in the air, with three companies proposing three disparate visions..." Of the proposals received, Synagro was the only one to propose hauling everything "away". All the other proposals (including those disqualified) proposed Anaerobic Digestion (AD) for food and sewage. The main difference between Cambi and Harvest Power is that the former precedes their AD with a thermo-hydrolysis process which breaks up cell walls, allowing the AD bacteria to get in there and release more energy.

The RFP was intentionally broad to allow for the diversity of potential technologies, yet was stringent enough to generate viable bids by stable companies, not just pie-in-the-sky concepts. It is interesting to me that all the energy options were forms of AD, and that we didn't get proposals for other technologies like Plasma Arc, Gasification, Biochar, etc. It is likely that these other technologies are too nascent and not yet widely deployed by established companies that could handle the needs of a medium-sized municipality.

So, for food and sewage, the general technology direction is clear, and the only question is private versus public ownership. The private ownership concept was to protect the city from risks of innovative technologies that in the end were not proposed. For well known and low-risk AD, public ownership represents considerable long-term savings for the city. A private operator needs to turn a profit for their investors, whereas a public operator just needs to pay off the capital and operational costs, and can invest in longer-lasting infrastructure.

The staff report gives a pretty clear set of phased next steps (from page 2 of the report):
1. A biosolids dewatering and truck load-out facility. This would allow for the earliest decommissioning of the existing incinerators and would serve as a back-up option for biosolids handling in emergency situations and increase the reliability and resiliency of the RWQCP;
2. A thermal hydrolysis, anaerobic digestion facility at the RWQCP initially for biosolids, and then for food scraps, when component three (below) is completed;
3. A food preprocessing system, either offsite or onsite compatible with the anaerobic digester at the RWQCP; and
4. A yard trimmings technology, consisting of either the current Aerobic Composting technology, or a more advanced technology which would include energy production.

@Craig: your objection rests upon the idea that our sewage is full of toxins, but the data does not bear this out. The city has a vigorous program to reduce or eliminate toxins at their sources before they go down the drain, and it monitors toxins at the input to the plant and publishes those reports. annually (in one or more of our prior PA Online exchanges on this point I link to such a report, I don't have the time to search for it now.) In addition, the current sewage incineration would concentrate toxins in the ash (at least any not destroyed by the fire), but the ash is only considered a hazardous waste because of its copper content, from copper water pipes. I know you are a fan of Plasma Arc, but no companies proposed that. So for the sewage, it's either AD in Palo Alto or composting it 100 miles away.

@STUDY: Well, it has been studied and shown to be economically and environmentally viable to do local AD. Plus, AD will be done on the existing sewage treatment plant site, without touching the former landfill/Byxbee Park. That may come into play again in the future when the city takes another look at an alternative to composting yard wastes 53 miles away, but for now you're safe. Even the community panelists from the "No on E" side support AD at the RWQCP.

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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 6, 2014 at 3:20 pm

This is the classic bait and switch. People voted to take 10 acres out of Byxbee Park for a garbage to energy facility that would do wondrous things for our city and its image. This is nothing of the sort.

We been deceived. Again. This time by a formerly respectable "environmentalist" group.

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Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 6, 2014 at 4:38 pm

If one wants to see how the organic growers community sees human sewage sludge, see this:

Web Link

It is a growing movement, and one that is not going away. If Palo Alto moves forward with this anaerobic digestion fiasco, we will face the possibility of a major financial obligation, because we will be stuck with the stuff...maybe even civil legal liabilities.

@Cedric: "I know you are a fan of Plasma Arc, but no companies proposed that". Why would they bother, since your group has promised to do everything possible to defeat such rational approaches. Palo Alto is not a good political environment to protect the environment.

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Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 6, 2014 at 8:01 pm

Residents in a Somerset village in England have said more needs to be done to tackle a "sewage-like smell" coming from a waste plant.

Cannington Bio Energy's anaerobic digestion plant was built to process farm waste but, since 2011, has dealt with food from outside the county.
Locals said the change in use had caused an odour described as a mixture of "dog's muck and burnt plastic".

New measures to tackle the problem have been approved by the county council.

'Constant' traffic

Rene Taylor, who runs Currypool Mill campsite near the plant, said an increase in traffic from the plant had also made life very difficult for her guests. "They are huge tractors with tankers on the back, and the lane is tiny," she added. "When they are moving the digestate into this area, then every few minutes they are up and down, all day long, from early morning to late at night - just constant.

"And the odours can be very, very bad, especially if the wind's in this direction. Even inside the house, you get this sickly odour which is almost like a combination of dog's muck and burnt plastic."

So this is what we want in the baylands?

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Posted by Resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 6, 2014 at 8:09 pm

We have other facilities directly in the area - golf course with soccer fields (planned), airport, proposed hotel at Mings, and Baylands refurbishment. We also have a high tide which will increase the bay encroachment inland. How do these proposed facilities fit into the space provided? Are the buildings too high for the incoming airplanes? We are talking processes - need to see how big the buildings are that house these processes.

That whole area needs to be mapped out for the different projects being discussed. There is also a project for upgrading the creek flood control directly in that area which I believe has already been funded.
Are trucks going to be continually traveling Embarcadero filled with "stuff"? What is the impact of each of these ideas on the general area and other projects in this area? There needs to be an impact report for how all of the other projects in that specific area fit together.

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Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 7, 2014 at 8:57 am

Whole Foods has agreed to no longer sell produce grown in soils contaminated with human sewage sludge. This concern is growing, which means that Palo Alto could get stuck with the stuff...then what? Back to incineration? How much will this fiasco cost PA?

Web Link

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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 7, 2014 at 1:32 pm

A few years ago we could go get compost at the PA dump. I of course went and I somehow then got a fungus growth that is appearing all over my yard that I had to take to the Sunset campus for them to identify. I thought it was a sea creature. My neighbors also got compost for their garden and got strange results.
If any of the results from this project are used on the golf course, parks, or soccer fields then it is unclear what the results will be for the people that are using those facilities. It should be noted that there is a lot of news on Valley Fever which is the result of fungus in the soil.
Is this another project we should vote on so that we are not throwing money away on unintended consequences?

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Feb 7, 2014 at 1:45 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Residents in a Somerset village in England have said more needs to be done to tackle a "sewage-like smell" coming from a waste plant.

Interestingly today the entire community of Somerset in underwater.

A spokesman for Avon and Somerset Police said: "Earlier this morning local flood defences were breached and the water level in Moorland began rising.
"We are have been informing local residents and strongly advising them to leave the area.
"The Royal Marines and search and rescue volunteers are assisting us with this."

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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 7, 2014 at 10:50 pm

Something to think about - when this subject originally came up we did not have the pressure we do now to increase housing and amenities for the city.
In a number of other subjects requiring city input it has been suggested that a hotel and other amenities could fit into the Embarcadero area to add more attractions. We are building up more soccer fields now, Mings wants to build a hotel, and we could fit in an apartment complex in that area on East Bayshore. Also a convention center such as seen at Shoreline Park - Michaels restaurant.
Creating a bio-tech dump no longer looks like such a great idea now that we have other options that require us to create a destination center for the city. There is a lot more we can do with that property now since we are being squeezed for buildable property. There are a lot of negatives noted above on putting a dump in that area.

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Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 7, 2014 at 11:19 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

There is no proposal to put in a dump. The landfill is full and closed and pending final conversion to Byxbee Park. The AD facility would be within the footprint of the existing sewage treatment plant and would replace the current sewage incinerator, generating energy instead of wasting it.

From the ~120 acre former landfill, Measure E rezoned 10 acres immediately adjacent to the sewage plant for an energy/compost (E/C) facility. If the city decides to pursue local composting of its yard trimmings (the contents of your green bins), the good news is that it looks like this can be done within ~4 acres.

It is currently highly improbable to use the former landfill for anything other than parkland or E/C, as it would require a vote of the people to change the zoning, it would be next to the smelly sewage plant (undesirable location), within the flight path of the airport (height limits), and there would be significant push back from the regulatory agencies which oversee the landfill.

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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 8, 2014 at 3:06 pm

One of the problems we have in this city - and others - is that a project is evaluated on it's own without an analysis on the impact on the surrounding area. Other project are being initiated - tearing trees out on the golf course, creating soccer fields which will increase traffic and parking in that area, others that want to expand the role of the airport, Build a gym near the baseball park, more people who want to expand the baylands trails - all of which are independently reviewed as "good ideas" irrespective of the impact on the other projects in the approval cycle.
I personally do not want any part of compost that includes human waste.
I think the Planning Department needs to create a full plan of all of the projects before money is spent.
Shoreline Amphitheatre is built on a "dump - fill" as is Shoreline Golf Course so that should not prohibit a creative use of the available land.

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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 9, 2014 at 11:01 am

The San Jose Mercury News has a good article on this subject today in the Sunday paper. It clearly lays out the choices - one of which is to do nothing. It helps frame the discussion with no spin included.

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

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