The long-running debate over the future of composting in Palo Alto reached a temporary truce Monday night, when the City Council agreed that now is not the time to build a local composting facility.
The decision by the council not to move along with a local composting operation came more than three years after voters approved Measure E, which made a 10-acre portion of Byxbee Park available for a potential composting plant. The issue polarized the environmental community, with some arguing that Palo Alto should take care of its own waste and others maintaining that parkland is not an appropriate place for an industrial operation.
On Monday, it wasn't these familiar arguments that swayed the council but a more practical consideration: cost. The city in September received bids from four different companies that offered to build a composting facility on the Measure E site. After eliminating one company from consideration and further evaluating the proposals from the other three, Public Works staff determined that even under the cheapest proposal, building a local plant would cost more than twice as much as exporting yard trimmings. Palo Alto has been shipping its yard trimmings to the Z-Best facility near Gilroy since 2011, when the city closed its landfill in Byxbee Park. The landfill included the city's composting operation.
The three proposals came from GreenWaste, Harvest Power and Synergy and had "net present values" (figures that include 15 years of operating costs and 30 years of amortized capital expenditures) of $59.7 million, $41.6 million and $39.4 million, respectively. The net present value of exporting yard trimmings was estimated at $18.9 million.
The cost estimates came as a disappointment to members of the Palo Alto Green Energy and Compost Initiatives, a group of environmentalists that has been lobbying hard for keeping composting local. In a letter to the council, the group noted that exporting waste is "irresponsible and ignores the traffic, climate and environmental justice consequences." Even so, group members recognized that the cost of having an enclosed composting facility "probably renders the local option too expensive at this time."
Former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, who is one of the group's co-founders, urged the council to table the decision on how the Measure E site would be used to a later date. The council voted 8-1, with Karen Holman dissenting, to do exactly that.
Drekmeier noted that even if the city doesn't proceed with a compost facility at this time, the Measure E site can be used for other purposes relating to waste management. Along with exploring a new composting facility, Palo Alto is also upgrading its sewage-treatment plant and preparing to retire its sludge-burning incinerators. The city is also preparing to build an anaerobic digester next to the plant, a facility that would convert local sludge and food waste into energy.
Drekmeier pointed out that if the city chooses to build an enclosed composting facility on the Measure E site at a later date, it would be able to process the residue (known as digestate) from the anaerobic digester.
"We feel it's very important to hold on to that option," Drekmeier told the council.
Former Councilwoman Emily Renzel, a conservationist who opposes a composting facility near the Baylands, argued that a local facility "offers no significant advantages" over the exporting option.
"In fact it has the significant disadvantages of high cost, use of parkland and loss of habitat," Renzel said.
For the council, the decision was strikingly simple. While prior discussions were lengthy and exhausting affairs filled with multiple motions and split votes, there was little disagreement on the council Monday night. Everyone agreed that given the price estimates, a local option is not feasible at this time. All except Holman (who has consistently opposed building a waste facility in the park) also agreed that the land should be preserved for a possible waste operation in the future.
Councilman Larry Klein's motion largely went along with Drekmeier's recommendation. Klein specified that the council should table the decision on how the Measure E site is used until the city has a better understanding of whether the land would be needed to support the anaerobic digester or until an "advanced technology for processing yard waste is available."
The council would also revisit the decision if it turns out that noise and odor can be sufficiently mitigated without a fully-enclosed building (thus making a local facility cheaper) or if exporting yard trimmings is no longer a cost-viable option.
Klein called the wait-and-see approach a "reasonable way to decide what to do with this site as we go forward."
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss agreed, even though she said she is troubled by the fact that the city currently trucks its waste.
"This is the middle-of-the-road decision, one that works well for where we are at this point in time," Kniss said.