Palo Alto moves ahead with sludge facility

New dewatering building will allow city to retire sewage-burning incinerators

The new building slated to go up in the Palo Alto Baylands will be a concrete structure, 50 feet in height, and designed to accommodate trucks filled with sewage.

And local environmentalists couldn't be happier.

In the new two-story building, sewage will be dried out and hauled out. That, in itself, may not sound exciting but for the city it is a critical step to a long-awaited moment: the retirement of its two sludge-burning incinerators. Eventually, the city plans to replace the polluting incinerators with cleaner and more cost-effective technology, such as an anaerobic digester that would turn local organic waste into energy by using microorganisms. But before that happens, the city is looking to shut down the incinerators and truck de-watered sludge to other sewage-treatment plants.

That's where the new facility comes in. It will occupy a site just southeast of the incinerator building in the Regional Water Quality Control Plant and will have a parapet reaching a height of 50 feet above grade. According to a report from the Public Works Department, it will be a cast-in-place concrete structure with painted structural steel and removable skylights. Landscaping will be integrated into the site to "interrupt views of the new building from off-site locations."

The new building will be located on a site within the Regional Water Quality Control Plant, near the current incinerators building. The ultimate goal is to install close to this site a facility that in addition to processing sewage sludge would also treat other organic waste, including food scraps and possibly yard trimmings.

While an anaerobic-digestion facility of the sort favored by proponents of Measure E (a 2011 measure in which voters "undedicated" a 10-acre site at Byxbee Park to accommodate a future waste-to-energy plant) remains the front-runner, Assistant Public Works Director Phil Bobel said Monday that staff will also evaluate other technologies, including gasification, which uses high temperatures but not combustion.

The project has already secured the approvals of both the city's Architectural Review Board and its Planning and Transportation Commission. On Monday night, it won a swift and unanimous endorsement from the City Council. In his presentation, Bobel stressed that despite its height, the building wouldn't stand out too much because of its close proximity to the 65-foot hill that once functioned as the city's landfill.

Once the new building is up, the city be able to shed its status as one of only two cities in California that still burn their sludge with incinerators (Central Contra Costa Sanitary District is the only other).

"We won't be knocking them down, but we'll be discontinuing their services forever as soon as we get the new dewatering facility up and running," Bobel said of the incinerators.

While the council isn't prone to quickly approving 50-foot-tall buildings, members made an exception Monday night. Councilman Greg Schmid was the only member who expressed some concerns about the building's compatibility with the Baylands Master Plan. He supported the project after his colleagues and staff agreed to take another look at the landscaping to make sure it's consistent with the city's overall vision for the Baylands.

The project comes with an estimated price tag of about $25 million, which will be shared by Palo Alto and its partners (Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Stanford and the East Palo Alto Sanitary District). Palo Alto's share will be about 35 percent, according to staff, and officials hope to acquire a loan from the state's revolving fund for water-quality improvement projects, according to the staff report.

Public Works expects to construct the dewatering facility in about two years.

Councilman Tom DuBois called the new facility "a good project" and Councilwoman Liz Kniss noted that the city is now at a turning point when it comes to sewage treatment. The time is now, she said, to get a new system in place.

"This is one of those plans that's been well-thought out, well-thought through and is a long time coming," Kniss said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Guest
a resident of another community
on Mar 29, 2016 at 10:35 am

Will the new facility (digester or whatever tech is chosen) but subjected to sea level rise at Baylands?

2 people like this
Posted by Emily Renzel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 29, 2016 at 11:29 am

Your article states that the new building will be built on the Measure E site. The map in the Staff report shows the load out building within the existing Regional Water Quality Control Plant site. The wet anaerobic digester is planned for the current site of the incinerator after it is demolished. At the present time, no construction is planned on the former parkland, now known as the Measure E site.

1 person likes this
Posted by Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Mar 29, 2016 at 12:12 pm

Gennady Sheyner is a registered user.

Hi Emily,

Thanks for the correction. Sorry for the error.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 29, 2016 at 6:32 pm

"At the present time, no construction is planned on the former parkland, now known as the Measure E site."

Actually, it is a former landfill.

Like this comment
Posted by Another resident
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 29, 2016 at 9:45 pm

When was it a landfill? didn't it then become parkland?

Or are you just sniping to express hostility.

2 people like this
Posted by Skeptic
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 30, 2016 at 10:20 am

Is this truly a better solution than incineration? I don't think so from a trucking and traffic point of view.

The incinerated ash causes trucking of about 19,344 miles per year (52 trips per year x 186 miles x 2 ways). The dewatered sludge will cause trucking of about 51,100 miles per year (5 trips a day x 14 miles x 2 ways x 365 days). I'm assuming the sludge will go to the San Jose plant. That is over twice the diesel emmissions and a lot more trucks on Embarcadero Road and 101.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 30, 2016 at 8:30 pm

It is a former landfill. It will always be a landfill. Turning it into a Park is kind of like putting lipstick on a pig.

2 people like this
Posted by Lerr
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 30, 2016 at 10:28 pm

Glad to see the incinerator go...but could you build a mound about the dehydrator and plant brush and trees so we don't see the new structure ? Overall...the decrease in visual pollution and harmony with surroundings might be worth the extra architectural and landscaping dollars. Create a batcave entrance. Easy to convert to a low temp burner in the future and safe as well from Earthquakes. Not sure I like the crap to fuel idea. Would have to study the fine print on environmental impact; including that smell factor. With gas headin' could be costing more than the end product to just burn it down and ship it out rather than create a Septic stink. Skeptic has a point...

2 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 1, 2016 at 3:41 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Personally, I really enjoy walking in Bixbee Park. I'm happy to have some up and down and the pretty views from the top. It's past life as a landfill is irrelevant, at least to me.

However, it's been five years since we voted to have the city evaluate an anaerobic digester and other local methods o trash disposal. Since then, San Jose has opened a digester that appears to be very successful - Palo Alto is trucking all its compost there. Why spend $25M (half the cost of a new public safety bldg which still doesn't have a date for completion or even for starting construction) for a facility if it is only going to be replaced later? Five years should be enough time to evaluate whether there is a cost-effective method to get rid of our garbage onsite and stop trucking our various sorts of garbage to various places.

What I suspect is that the city administration does not want an anaerobic digester for whatever reason but rather upset anyone, they just keep postponing the discussion and in the meantime, we will spend $25M for an interim solution that continues to produce greenhouse gases. Why can't we just have a final local solution or admit that will not happen in our lifetime and deal with the reaction. If it isn't practical, I can accept it, unhappily. But the lack of transparency in the decision process (i.e. what have they been doing for the last five years?) is very annoying. Maybe I have missed something.

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