Palo Alto's passionate debate over the future of composting will resume Monday night, when the City Council considers whether it makes more sense to create a local operation or continue the current practice of shipping yard trimmings to a regional facility in Gilroy.
The council will discuss on Monday, Dec. 8, the four responses that the city received last month to its request for proposals on a new composting operation. They will also consider the two different alternatives proposed by staff: Either rejecting all four proposals or begin negotiations with the firm Synergy to build a composting facility on a 3.8-acre site that voters "undedicated" in 2011 when they passed Measure E.
The two options outlined in the new staff report reflect the polarizing debate that has been raging in the city's environmental community since Palo Alto shut down its landfill in Byxbee Park more than two years ago.
With the landfill's composting operation shut down, Palo Alto began to export its yard waste to the Z-Best facility in Gilroy, a practice that has galvanized local environmentalists who would rather see the city take care of its own waste.
With that aim, a coalition of environmentalists led a successful drive in 2011 to make a 10-acre site next to the city's Regional Water Quality Control Plant available for a new composting operation. Other environmentalists, led by former council members Emily Renzel and Enid Pearson, have vehemently opposed this drive, arguing that a new composting operation does not belong in Byxbee Park, near the Baylands.
Staff's conflicting recommendations also reflect the trade-offs that the city will have to make, whichever path it chooses. The new report notes that exporting would cost less than building a local facility and would allow Palo Alto to utilize regional composting facilities, such as the ones in Milpitas, San Jose, Gilroy or Lathrop. It would also "help the city reach its landfill diversion goal in the same way as a composting facility built in Palo Alto," according to the staff report.
However, building a local compost facility of the sort advocated by Measure E proponents would provide "a greater level of long-term price certainty (at least 15 years), allow for local control as needs and and requirements change, provide a sustainable organics solution within Palo Alto, a local source of compost to residents and result in somewhat fewer transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions," the staff report states.
Recognizing the delicate political landscape, the report concludes that the two options in the staff recommendations "are both viable paths forward toward meeting the City's zero waste and climate action plan goals."
The clash of green values is expected to flare up again Monday as the council considers Synergy's proposal along with three others that staff received in September.
One proposal, submitted by the firm BioMRF was summarily rejected because the firm did not provide "satisfactory information" and does not have experience operating in North America.
The other three proposals, by GreenWaste, Harvest Power and Synergy, came closer to meeting the city's requirements, though the new staff report makes it clear that any of these options would be more expensive than the exporting services. Each of these would combine food scraps and yard trimmings in the new compost operation.
GreenWaste, which also serves as the city's trash hauler, presented a proposal that received the highest "qualitative score" of the three, reflecting its strong technical resources, experiences and environmental approach. But its offer was far more expensive than the other two, which dragged its "overall score" to well below the other two viable proposals.
The company also "took a number of exceptions" to the city's proposed contract, according to staff, and provided a timeline that showed the compost operation commencing in September 2018, nine months later than called for in the city's timeline.
Harvest Power fared better in the overall scoring and indicated that it could meet the city's timeline and accept the contract conditions in the request for proposals. But the company's proposal did not include a financial structure that would cover all operational parts of the compost facility, as the city requested. Its proposed facility did not include a structure covering all operation parts, which raised concerns about odor. Though it proposed enclosing the feedstock-receiving and pre-processing components of the operation, staff remained concerned that this would not be enough.
"While many technologies can control process odors, only a structure that covers the entire operation (like a building) can control odors that generate from moving the compost into the vessels or from process area to process area," the Public Works report states, noting that Harvest Power's design did not fully comply with the city's request for proposals.
This leaves Synergy as the city's best option of the ones currently on the table, according to staff. Its facility, unlike Harvest Power's, would be entirely enclosed. The estimated capital cost of $20.7 million in the Synergy proposal is well below the $31.2 million cost in GreenWaste's.
Staff's main concern with the Synergy offer is that the construction contractor and compost operator are different companies that have not worked together before. The entity they formed, Synergy, "has no history of completing any projects, let alone building and operating a compost facility," the staff report states.
Though Synergy's proposal is the cheapest of the three under consideration, it would cost rate payers far more compared to exporting services, according to staff. In tallying the cost of each proposals, staff concluded that the net present value (which considers 15 years of operating costs as well as 30 years of amortized capital expenses) of the GreenWaste, Harvest Power and Synergy proposals are $59.7 million, $41.6 million and $39.4 million, respectively. The net present value of exporting is estimated at $18.9 million.
The compost discussion is one component of a broader plan to revamp the city's management of organic waste. Palo Alto is already proceeding with a plan to upgrade the water-treatment plant by building a "biosolids dewatering and truck haul-out facility," a step that would allow the city to retire its obsolete sludge-burning incinerators. The other major component of the plan is construction of a new anaerobic digestion facility that would process sludge and ultimately food scraps.
Underscoring the tense nature of the compost debate is a disagreement over whether the discussion should even take place this month. The 348-page report with the request for proposals responses and background was only released Wednesday, which has some critics from the conservationist camp crying foul about insufficient time to review the materials.
They lobbied staff to continue the discussion to Jan. 12, to give them more time to study the proposals. Proponents of the new facility lobbied to proceed with the Dec. 8 discussion, as initially scheduled.
Politics may also play a role in the squabble over dates. The three council members who are concluding their tenures this month, Larry Klein, Gail Price and Nancy Shepherd, had all sided with the pro-Measure E camp in the past and have been largely sympathetic to building a local composting operation.
It's not clear whether the three new members who will be joining the council next month -- Eric Filseth, Tom DuBois and Cory Wolbach -- will be as inclined to support a local composting operation.
After environmentalists Renzel complained to staff last week about insufficient time to review the materials, Assistant Public Works Director Phil Bobel responded, saying "proponents got the mayor/CM (city manager) to put the compost item back on the 12/8 agenda."
Shepherd also responded to Renzel's concerns about transparency by reaffirming that the meeting will take place on Dec. 8, as initially scheduled.
"As you know, this item was deferred in April with the request it return to this council before year-end for final consideration and release to vendors," Shepherd wrote in a Dec. 1 email to Renzel.