But most people, including the City Council, agreed Monday night, July 2, the city needs to have much more information before it can make such complex decisions and supported an ambitious action plan aimed at arriving at the crucial answers.
The plan, which the council approved by an 8-0 vote (with Gail Price absent), centers on two major waste operations at Byxbee Park — the outdated wastewater-treatment plant and a waste-to-energy facility the city is considering building near the plant to process yard trimmings, food waste and possibly sewage sludge. The city's goal is to decide by early 2014 whether to build the latter, known as an anaerobic digester.
The council acknowledged Monday that the city has mounds of homework to do before it would be able to decide on the future of the Regional Water Quality Control Plant, which serves Palo Alto, Stanford University, Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and the East Palo Alto Sanitary District. The facility uses incinerators to burn sewage, forcing the city to then ship hazardous ash to a landfill. The aged plant is also showing "signs of extreme wear," according to Phil Bobel, assistant director of the Public Works Department.
The process of retiring the incinerators and revamping the old wastewater plant is expected to cost about $250 million over a period of 15 years, Bobel said. Making the necessary upgrades to meet state and federal regulations could add another $150 million to the price tag.
But while this operation is complex enough in itself, it is made even more so by the proposal to build an anaerobic digester at a 10-acre site near the sewage plant. The city's voters passed Measure E last November, "undedicating" the site and making it available for a waste-to-energy facility that converts yard scraps and food waste into energy. The highly divisive discussion over the composting plant was prompted by last year's closure of Palo Alto's landfill, also located at Byxbee Park, which included the city's composting operation. Since then, many residents have argued that the city should build a new composting plant, while opponents have argued that a public park is the worst possible place for a new, long-term waste operation.
The action plan aims to coordinate the two ambitious and highly complex projects, Bobel said.
"We need a roadmap," he said. "Without that, we could construct one project in one location which could be negative to another needed project that we'd subsequently realize. To avoid this improper sequencing, we need a plan."
The action plan calls for the city to spend much of 2013 evaluating proposals from technology companies, conducting the state-mandated environmental analysis, crunching numbers and considering its options for exporting the waste, should a new plant prove infeasible. The goal is to have the analysis completed by January 2014 and to make a decision on a new waste-to-energy plant the following month, though city officials acknowledged that with so many moving pieces, the timeline could easily slip.
"The complexity is that we have to, at some point, move forward on a biosolids (wastewater) facility because the incinerators do need to be replaced," Bobel said.
If everything were to go as planned and the city were to pursue the waste-to-energy plant, its construction could begin in 2015 and be completed by 2018. The new wastewater facility, meanwhile, could be completed around 2019.
Both camps in the compost debate were represented at Monday's meeting. Proponents of the plant encouraged the council to accept the staff proposal, which also includes creating an "Organics Resource Recovery Strategy" that would analyze the city's organic-waste needs. Opponents, who have filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Measure E, maintained that the city is wasting money on a project that would destroy parkland.
Bob Wenzlau, who co-wrote Measure E, urged the council to proceed with a balanced study and to "move to the next chapter in this book." Former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, a leading proponent of the composting plant, compared the current debate to the city's decision to build its own utilities a century ago.
"We want to be independent, and we want to do it right," Drekmeier said.
But former Councilwomen Emily Renzel and Enid Pearson, conservationists who oppose the plant, urged the council not to pursue any plan that would impact Byxbee Park.
"Don't allow yourselves to be responsible for destroying decades of planning at Byxbee Park," Renzel said, referring to the plan, set aside by Measure E, for the landfill site to become parkland after its closure.
Though opponents had earlier suggested that the council wait until the lawsuit is settled before making any decisions, the council rejected that approach, with Councilman Larry Klein (himself an attorney) calling the lawsuit a "delay tactic" by the opposition.
Councilman Greg Schmid, who had long urged the council to consider other types of technologies in addition to anaerobic digestion, suggested that staff has not explored enough options. He had advocated that the city look at other cities in the state, beyond the immediate region, for possible solutions.
"I'm disturbed that, in this long-term plan, we have drawn very serious boundaries about what we're studying," Schmid said.
But Schmid ended up joining the rest of the council in approving the action plan, which other council members praised for its ability to weave two giant projects together. Though members have narrowly split in the past over the proposed waste-to-energy plant, everyone agreed that the council needs more answers before it can make a decision. Burt, borrowing from former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, said the city still has too many "known unknowns" that it needs to "move to the bucket of known knowns."
Klein called the action plan "wonderful," Vice Mayor Greg Scharff noted its "thoroughness" and Mayor Yiaway Yeh lauded it for not predetermining any outcomes for the composting dilemma.
"It really allows every option to remain on the table," Yeh said. "It's taking a step forward on everything simultaneously, and I think that's an incredible achievement."