Council gives wide berth for possible plant | January 18, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 18, 2013

Council gives wide berth for possible plant

Palo Alto landfill to remain uncovered for 16 months while the city assesses building composting facility

by Sue Dremann

Fifty-one acres of now-defunct Palo Alto landfill will not become parkland in the coming year, the Palo Alto City Council decided Monday night, Jan. 14.

Council members voted 7 to 2 (Karen Holman and Greg Schmid opposed) to ask county and state regulatory agencies for permission to defer capping of the landfill at the end of Embarcadero Road, a process that would keep methane gas and other pollutants from escaping. Instead, the land at Byxbee Park is to remain untouched until the council can fully explore the idea of building a composting plant there.

The city could be in violation of state law if it does not cap the landfill and does not succeed in convincing regulators to grant a 16-month extension. Those regulatory agencies include the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health and state agencies CalRecycle and the Regional Water Quality Control Board. Violations could cost the city up to $10,000 per day in fines, city staff said.

Mindful of that, council members also directed staff to explore options for legal or legislative action, should regulators deny the city's request for an extension of at least 16 months.

In postponing the landfill capping, council members said they want to preserve Palo Alto voters' 2011 direction, given in Measure E, to set aside up to 10 acres of the parkland for a plant that would create energy from the city's compostable waste, such as food scraps and yard trimmings.

"I believe the vote gave us marching orders ... and we need to take every step we can to preserve this 10 acres," Councilman Larry Klein said.

By its vote Monday night, the council opted not to follow the staff's recommendation to cap 34 acres out of the 51 this summer and fall. The remaining 17 would have been large enough to accommodate a 5-acre composting plant.

City staff said that the regulatory agencies have indicated they might not allow removal of the soil covering the landfill once it is in place because it would disturb the area, a factor that council members weighed in their deliberations.

Cost was also a serious consideration among council members. Removing and reconstructing the cap as part of construction of a composting plant could cost up to $3 million, staff noted.

"The cost related to capping or removing the cap later is so significant that it seems appropriate to defer action for this time," Councilwoman Gail Price said.

The landfill closed in the summer of 2011, but the property at the end of Embarcadero has been a source of controversy. Many conservationists want the city to cap the landfill and return the acreage to public parkland as had been planned decades ago.

Former councilwoman Emily Renzel, who opposes a new composting facility, urged the council to cap all 51 acres now and open up the parkland. Delaying would be a violation of the public trust, she said.

"Fifty years after the land has been dedicated, Palo Alto has not been very green with respect to Byxbee Park," she said.

The landfill site previously housed the city's composting operation. Now, yard waste is trucked south and ends up at a facility in Gilroy. Measure E supporters fought to have the 10-acre section of landfill set aside for a new composting plant.

Councilwoman Karen Holman, in offering her dissenting opinion, said that voters only approved setting aside 10 acres, not 51, in approving Measure E.

But former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, who spearheaded the Measure E campaign, said that leaving all 51 acres uncapped would keep open the most options for siting and building a waste-to-energy facility.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at


Posted by Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 15, 2013 at 5:52 am

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

This is good news indeed. I welcome a voting majority on Council that aligns with our community's vote that passed Measure E. What a long road this project has been. Obviously more bends in the road are ahead, but we have a new Council is less ambiguous in offering supportive consideration of a green energy and compost project.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 15, 2013 at 7:33 am

So, anyone ready to file a complaint with the County Department of Environmental Health or the Regional Water Quality Control Board? Or are those agencies not in the habit of enforcing anything?

Posted by Hilary Gans , a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Jan 15, 2013 at 11:10 am

Thank you to a council that sees the big picture and respects the residents who voted to pass Measure E.

I hope this vote signifys an end to the time-wasting politics of equivocation.

Posted by JerryL, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 15, 2013 at 11:18 am

I am sick to death of hearing about Byxbee Park. Gosh darn it, we have
GOT Byxbee Park and it is plenty big for the use it gets.
Hats off to those who voted in the majority.

Posted by Skeptic, a resident of Duveneck School
on Jan 15, 2013 at 11:19 am

I would like to know more about the health effects of leaving the landfill uncapped for the time being. And I think it's really bad that with all the land in Palo Alto, we have to dedicate what was promised to be park land to the possibility of developing this factory. The proponents of Measure E continue to interpret the results as suggesting that the vast majority of Palo Altans support the construction of such a factory in that location, when in fact the measure was cleverly crafted to merely say that the City should study the possibility -- hard for anyone to argue with the idea of getting information. Many of the city staff are biased toward trying to get "gee whiz bang" "innovation" into Palo Alto, and various naturalists and others have been told they may not speak up about the needs, plans and possibilities for the park.

Posted by Bill Leikam, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 15, 2013 at 11:20 am

For those of us who want to see a park and not a composting facility that would be outrageously expensive, let's begin a campaign to urge the County Department of Environmental Health, CalRecycle, and the Regional Water Quality Control Board to deny the extension and cap the full 51 acres of landfill once and for all. It was supposed to be shut down and capped as far back as the late 60s or early 70s by a vote of the people of Palo Alto.

Posted by Don't need it, a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Jan 15, 2013 at 11:25 am

Oh Hillary--too bad that you claim that people that oppose Peter's folly are engaged in "the time-wasting politics of equivocation". Too bad you have so little respect for those who disagree with this issue and think that this will end up costing us a fortune.
And if you want to discuss "time wasting", then why only now is this issue being discussed. the vote was 14 months ago. Why no action?
And do not forget that the people voted to keep 10 acres aside for the folly--just 10 nothing more. So if Larry Klein is saying "I believe the vote gave us marching orders ... and we need to take every step we can to preserve ... 10 acres," , then why are 51 acres being held back????
Let's quickly look at this issue, decide that it is a waste of money and not feasible and then dedicate all the land for the park. End of story. Thank you Cedric, Hilary and Peter, but no thanks for attempting to add another financial burden to our city

Posted by dontflyoffthehandle, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 15, 2013 at 11:46 am

To Bill Leikam and others.
Neither I nor anyone I know who voted *for* the 10 acre set-aside wants or will support a plant unless it is cost-effective and environmentally appropriate. So let's not over-react!

And as far as it being dedicated to parkland for 50 years, that vote was 50 years ago! Times and circumstances change! Whereas it was absolutely right then, it *may* not be right now.

Posted by Kill-this-Project-Idea-Now!, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 15, 2013 at 11:58 am

> will support a plant unless it is cost-effective

This is probably the key issue—since the premise of this plant is that the electricity will be forced onto the PAU customers. The current cost of electricity is getting pretty expensive. One the 600 KWH threshold is exceeded, people are paying 16 cents per KWH. At the moment, all of the future cost projections for the PAU seem to be going up, not down. (Although there don’t seem to be any long term projections released by the PAU to base that claim upon.)

Using the current technology, at the very least, the PAU should be able to come up with an estimate for the cost to operate a plant, and make a reasonable estimate of how the power would be priced. It if exceeds the future cost projections of electricity—then there is absolutely no reason to proceeded. All of the silly claims about poisoning other communities with our sludge are easily disproven. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that the Council took the time to actually do their homework—which is another reason the complexity of running a Municipal Utility exceeds the pool of candidates for Council elections.

So far—this whole project seems to be nothing more than pie-in-the-sky.

Posted by Paco, a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Jan 15, 2013 at 2:04 pm

So while the landfill remains uncapped, every Bay Area resident has to suffer from methane gasses and pollutants put out by Palo Alto's rotting garbage. I guess Palo Alto's City Council believes their garbage should receive a state and regional exemption because everyone knows Palo Alto's garbage is unique in quality. Meanwhile, Palo Alto will embark on on a multi-year "Blue ribbon" committee session costing local residents millions and producing no results plus $10,000 a day in penalties and fines. So this is the leadership that the new Mayor and Klein promised us? Why not be a good citizen and spare the communites around Palo Alto and in the Bay Area from your ignorance and self serving incompetence. What a pity!

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 15, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

@Paco, author Sue Dremman, and other readers: Unfortunately, the following phrase at the top of the article is somewhat misleading: "...capping of the landfill at the end of Embarcadero Road, a process that would keep methane gas and other pollutants from escaping." The article fails to mention that the uncapped 51 acres currently have in place controls for methane and leachate to collect gas and liquid which may escape from the landfill and to prevent discharge into the environment. I know this from direct and unambiguous conversation with staff, and it is also mentioned in less detail on page 2-1 of the staff report (Web Link): "The Landfill includes a leachate collection and control system and a landfill gas collection system."

Palo Alto landfill is currently in compliance with regulatory agencies, it is seeking to extend its deadline for capping so that it can remain uncapped until we know how much of the site may be needed, while remaining in compliance, and there is currently no penalty pending or being applied. The $10K penalty threat does not apply yet, and Council and Staff have taken due diligent steps to make sure it won't. (The Blue Ribbon Compost Task Force, on which I served, completed its task in 2009, there will not be an additional task force. The RFP will be issued next month to get real prices on real technologies for a known site and material stream. The schedule is to have those responses received and evaluated by February 2014.)

Regarding the previous poster's comments about price of electricity generation, that is not the only concern. The cost also includes cost to manage the city's organics (food, yard, sewage), the cost to purchase compost if we don't produce it here, the value of produced energy, the tangible and intagible value of carbon offsets. If we don't do a local project, we have to pay to ship our organics offsite to be handled by another entity. The previously completed financial feasibility study indicated potential savings of up to $2M/year over 20 years for local handling of our organics. The RFP will give us real bids and figures to make a final decision.

The 51 acres are being delayed a year so that the full 10 acre site will be available. The staff's proposal to cap 34 acres now would not have left enough space uncapped to redistribute excavated fill should the full 10 acres be needed. In the meeting I suggested that if they cap any, it should be an earlier staff proposal to cap 22 acres, which would have left enough space to excavate the whole 10 acres, though it would have created a rather steep and taller hill. With the 51 acres kept in reserve, should we need the full 10 acres, that fill can be spread on a larger area to create more appealing contours on the park.

Posted by Snug the Jointer, a resident of Southgate
on Jan 15, 2013 at 3:00 pm

As a regular visitor to Byxbee Park, it's not exactly the most alluring site to begin with. The stagnant bay stinks most days, along with the stinky remnants of the dump, a creepy restroom, all the geese poop you could ever want, a little rain produces a lot of mud, and nothing much noteworthy other than the art pieces.

The new section designated for recreational use is coming together, slowly. There is some greenery starting to pop up, just waiting for the frost to end and the sun to shine down. Strangely, no animals. I'm not sure about the business of capping off a dump, how that exactly works. It's gonna need some trees there or something or else it's gonna be really roasty in the summertime, but maybe trees can't root that far down into what I assume is cement.

I like to pretend I'm on the surface of Mars or something when I'm on that new piece of land. But I look over at the walled-off portion and wonder what they are doing over there. Seems like they are just moving dirt around, stalling for time as they await an order of whether to cap it or turn it into something.

Posted by Paco, a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Jan 15, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Cedric- Glad you are impressed with your conversations with expert City employee staff that leaving an uncapped landfill dump is in our best interests. I guess there is no self-serving motive in their "opinion" or questionable data Obviously pollutants emitted by leaving the landfill uncapped will only cause minimal depletion of our ozone layer and groundwater runoff will only pollute a little of the Bay and nearby creeks. Nevermind the health effects from rotting landfill waste to residents of Palo Alto and neighboring communittes. How unfortunate that one would formulate an opinion or conclusion using only one source of information.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 15, 2013 at 3:22 pm

My worry is that PA Utilities will charge residents for the electricity that we DON'T use.

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Jan 15, 2013 at 4:04 pm

As Cedric, bob, Hilary and Peter like to remind us- the public were snookered into voting for this potential folly overwhelmingly ( you would think that after voting in favor of the library pig in a poke, they would have known better, especially given the track record of the organizer). Well if that is the case, the measure said 10 acres. Period. In that case all but 10 acres should be immediately capped and turned into par land. To do otherwise would be to go against the will of the people. No more arguments or excuses from Hillary, Cedric and bob et al. This vote was over a year ago and no progress yet. Cap the landfill now

Posted by An Engineer for the Environment, a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 15, 2013 at 4:14 pm

"the uncapped 51 acres currently have in place controls for methane and leachate to collect gas and liquid which may escape from the landfill and to prevent discharge into the environment."

Non-technical people often misconstrue technical concepts, as Mr de La Beaujardiere's note illustrates. However, last night Bob Moss (an engineer) correctly informed the city council that an uncapped pile of trash leaks methane into the environment, which is a greenhouse gas far more potent than its more famous cousin carbon dioxide. (It is also flammable -- does anybody remember how the lawn at Shoreline Park, which sits on the former Mountan View dump, used to catch fire until they installed a proper cap?) Moreover, the porous surface of an uncapped dump admits rainwater, which mixes with the nasties in the trash pile and carries them out as leachate.

Bottom line: the Palo Alto City Dump is a detriment to the local and global environment until it is properly capped. Our city government deserves to be pilloried in shame by real environmentalists, and our local "environmentalists" have much to learn about the effects of the pollution they actively promote.

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Jan 15, 2013 at 4:21 pm

Thanks, an engineer, for your posting. Many of us have long understood that many in the local and vocal " environmental" lobby are only interested iin self glorification, so that they can go around bragging about their " accomplishments" . Some are also just too lazy to actually do any work to uncover the facts that you present.
We shoul cap the dump and say no to this ego driven venture.

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 15, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

I guess I wasn't sufficiently clear in my posting, or people with biases discard contradictory information.

On the uncapped portion of the landfill, there is already equipment to collect methane and to collect leachate, so there are no air emissions and no leachate flowing off site. I give more credibility to my direct source of information than to any number of conjecturing posters who lack first-hand information.

On the question of what the cap entails, it used to be a thick layer of clay, topped with feet of compost (I don't recall how many feet). Now it is projected to be a geotextile fabric topped with feet of compost. Trees are not permitted to be planted on the landfill, lest their roots break the barrier. The landfill is contoured so that water sheds off it and does not pool and sink in excessively. Areas that subside are periodically maintained to restore the contours and prevent ponding. I believe the plan is to use native grasses and flowers, so that is good for our local ecology, though anyone who works in restoration will tell you it is difficult to keep invasive non-native weeds out. Apparently the pattern of bumps which is art at the top of Byxbee have made such maintenance difficult and end up harboring invasive plants in their folds.

As for electricity, the sewage treatment plant is the single largest consumer of electricity, and can easily absorb all the energy generated from the proposed renewable energy facility. It could be beneficial to have such a site next to the plant, such that if there is a regional disaster with loss of energy, we could potentially keep treating our sewage instead of having it overflow. Anyway, regional grids are interconnected, so excess energy could be sold to the external grid operators.

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Jan 15, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Cedric-- how about following the will of the people. Cap all but the 10 acres voted upon. Once the city decides to finally say no to the self-appointed " environmentalists" and their costly folly, then cap the 10 acres. End of story. Enough with the equivocation, hocus pouch, hearsay and misdirection. We are familiar with the track records of these " environmentalists" and we are not impressed

Posted by Joe, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 15, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Thanks Cedric for your comments. We admire your calm, complete and reasoned replies on this issue.

While Bob Moss has done some wonderful things for Palo Alto, and our neighborhood in particular, "An Engineer for the Environment" should know that Bob was trained as a materials science engineer. He has no professional background in Environmental or Civil Engineering. Here's a link to a nice article about Bob in the SJMerc from 2011: Web Link

Bob was also a very vocal opponent of Measure E which "undedicated" the landfill site. Here's a link to his position in the PaloAltoPatch in October, 2011: Web Link

Having worked as a Civil and Environmental Engineer myself, I believe the City is doing the right thing. As Cedric said, capping a large portion of the landfill now will limit the opportunity to properly grade and improve the park, especially if all 10 acres gets utilized. Contrary to what Bob Moss says, the issue of methane leaking into the environment is a red-herring.

There are obviously risks to this project, but they're much beyond the trivial sniping and comments posted here. It's a shame Sue Dremann's writing style is so inflammatory and lacking in context of the facts. Articles such as this one are a disservice to the Weekly and people of Palo Alto.

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Jan 15, 2013 at 6:18 pm

Joe- lets get to the real issue. The voters okayehd 10 acres. Period. No more no less. Therest should be capped.. Do not try to blame the fact that you are trying to circumvent the will of the people on Dremann's writing style.
This whole folly is a disservice to the people of palo alto. Labeling the concerns from those that refuse to march n lockstep with our " environmental" leaders as trivial sniping does not impress anyone.
Let's have this resolved soon-- it has been 15 months since the vote and we have madmen no progress towards resolving the issue.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 15, 2013 at 6:25 pm

>Non-technical people often misconstrue technical concepts...

Yes, they do.

However, this is not a technical issue, per se. It is a political issue. The zero-waste fanatics are highly organized in Palo Alto, and they get their way, no matter how they misunderstand the technical solutions or costs involved. They will still win, if the city council continues to accept their pablum. In the end, it will just heap even more debt on our city budget. Add it on to our other unfunded mandates.

Crazy is as crazy does.

Posted by Bryan Long, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 15, 2013 at 11:28 pm

Thank you to the City Council for a very reasonable vote. There are obviously some people who are very unhappy with the idea of a composting facility (who also seem to prefer hiding behind pseudonyms). Perhaps on further evaluation it will indeed be decided that construction of a composting facility doesn't make sense. On the other hand, perhaps the proponents estimates of long-term cost savings will prove accurate and the facility will make a lot of sense. At this point, however, it doesn't make sense to do things that might make construction of a facility more expensive, when there is no urgent reason to do so. The City Council perceived that and made the right vote.

Posted by An Engineer for the Environment, a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 16, 2013 at 9:51 am

"I guess I wasn't sufficiently clear in my posting...On the uncapped portion of the landfill, there is already equipment to collect methane and to collect leachate, so there are no air emissions and no leachate flowing off site."

NO emissions?!??. NO leachate? Wrong.

Let’s try an example that hopefully the non-technical types promoting this project can follow. Say you’ve insulated your home (surely you actually have). The purpose of insulation is to keep the heat in. With me so far?

So now you don’t need your furnace, right? But why does the pesky thing keep coming on?

The insulation is doing its job, but, like the methane collection system at the dump, it’s not 100% effective. That’s why the state mandates capping these big trash piles, to seal in the methane until the collection pipes get it, instead of letting it flow into the atmosphere to do its greenhouse gas thing.

I’ve already explained how the cap reduces leachate.

Bottom line: our local "environmentalists" have persuaded our city to needlessly vent many tons of the potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere. None of their denials can change that.

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 17, 2013 at 12:54 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

I think there may also already exist a compacted soil layer, but my recollection on that point is not firm, so I did not mention it before.

For those who suggest cap it all but the 10 acres, the Council has already made their decision, and fortunately I believe it was a good one. However, the reason that additional acreage needs to be left uncapped is that if the 10 acres need to be excavated, the fill dug out needs to be put somewhere. Shipping it offsite to another landfill was estimated at like $10M. Putting it on the existing landfill is the most affordable option, but if the area where it is distributed has already been capped, it costs money to redo the cap. I asked if it could just be put on top of the existing cap and a second cap placed over it, and the answer was no, it would not have been engineered for the extra weight. So capping and then recapping would cost ~$3M extra versus just not capping until it is final. Fiscal conservatives should take note that the Council took the most fiscally conservative action Monday.

I'll be busy for a while so don't expect any further replies from me.

Posted by Vinnie, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 17, 2013 at 9:22 am

I say put a car dealership on top of the dump.

Posted by Bob , a resident of Community Center
on Jan 17, 2013 at 5:02 pm

WHAT is this going to cost us? A bond issue? More taxes? A parcel tax? HIgher utility rates??? Pray, please tell us upfront and honestly. After the Arrillaga debacle, trust in the City Council is at an all time low - trust in City management is even lower!!

Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Jan 17, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Sounds to me like Peter, Cedric, Hilary, Brian and the rest of the gang pulled a bait and switch on us. The vote was for 10 acres not 51 . Probably if they had 51 acres on the measure it would have been voted down. I see a certain lack of integrity with these so called " environmentalists" .
Also wonder why Peter never adreses the issues raised n this forum--- is he just a clueless front man? Or is it just too much effort to respond.
How much will this folly cost us?

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 17, 2013 at 6:41 pm

> Fiscal conservatives should take note that the Council took the most fiscally conservative action Monday.

Wrong! The most fiscally conservative solution would be to cancel the entire project. It is a disaster in progress. It has no proven record to handle human sewage sludge, mixed into compost; it's cost structure is a complete guesstimate.

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 26, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Just to follow up on the methane question, I spoke with city staff again and learned that there is a temporary cap consisting of semi-compacted soil (I say semi compacted because vehicles have driven all over it, but there wasn't a specific compacting plan to make sure every square foot was compacted to a specific degree), with vertical perforated pipes descending from the surface to the bottom of the landfill to suck leachate (e.g. water) and methane travelling through the landfill volume at any depth, and bring these up to the surface where a manifold of pipes collect the liquids and gas. (I think the surface pipes are probably under the soil.)

A permanent cap would be the same, except that there would be a geotextile fabric (like a rubber of plastic membrane/sheet). While it could be argued that this membrane would help trap methane until it could be sucked out by the vertical pipes, in practice they monitor methane at the surface of the landfill and there are no detectable levels of methane.

So this claim that methane is being emitted through the temporary cap is proven false by actual measurements. It is good to think of such problems, and fortunately our city staff have thought of them and solved them ahead of time.

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 26, 2013 at 7:05 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

"rubber of plastic" should be "rubber or plastic"

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