Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 18, 2013

Editorial: Council follows risky strategy to set aside space for compost plant

Palo Alto could run afoul of environmental regulations by waiting to cover landfill

Harking back to the voters' 2011 decision to set aside 10 acres of the city's defunct landfill for a waste-to-energy plant, the Palo Alto City Council decided Monday to take a precarious path that will delay transfer of any acres of landfill to Byxbee Park for more than a year and risk fines of up to $10,000 a day for not capping the old dump.

In the 7-2 vote (Karen Holman and Greg Schmid opposed), the council passed up a recommendation from staff to cap 34 acres out of the 51, which in our view would leave plenty of space — 17acres — if the council were to decide next year to build an anaerobic-digester plant on 10 acres as laid out in Measure E. Instead, the council decided to make sure it had maximum space for the waste-to energy plant, worrying that if a portion of capped acreage were needed, it could cost up to $3 million to open it up again.

Staff members said if the city did cover a portion of the landfill, regulators had indicated they would be reluctant to allow the city to remove it. Capping is a state requirement to prevent harmful gases from escaping.

The approval for extending the capping deadline by 16 months must come from regulatory agencies such as the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health and the state's Regional Water Quality Control Board, as well as CalRecycle. And if the agencies don't agree, the resulting fine could be up to a hefty $10,000 a day. Council members said they would appeal to the state Legislature and even the courts if they are not granted an extension.

Emily Renzel, a former council member who supports capping the entire landfill, said the city should immediately add the property to Byxbee Park. Delaying the transfer would be a violation of the public trust, she told the council.

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

The council had no quarrel with the timeline in the report. It would provide vendors until August to submit proposals to develop an anaerobic digester facility that would turn waste, yard trimmings, food scraps and sewage into methane gas that could be converted into electricity. If it performs as well as promised by its advocates, like former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, it could save the city money over the long run and substantially reduce the greenhouse gases produced by trucking the garbage to San Jose or Gilroy.

But there is substantial risk in this strategy as well. The council is betting that a waste-to-energy digester can be built at a reasonable cost and that it would perform as advertised. Until the bids are opened and the plant is up and running, though, there is no certainty that a digester plant can get the job done at a price Palo Alto can afford.

Before embarking on this path and prior to passage of Measure E in November 2011, the council studied a consultant's analysis of the cost of anaerobic technology compared to hauling the waste to San Jose or Gilroy. In some ways the results were inconclusive, finding that the cheapest alternative for a local plant would be $58.6 million over 20 years. Other options were more expensive, and opponents of the disgester technology did not agree with some estimated costs for carbon and contingency fees related to the trucking option.

Drekmeier found the financial projections "very positive for anaerobic disgestion," adding that the numbers look even better if the city doesn't charge rent for the landfill site and the facility is publicly owned.

The city will know a lot more beginning in August, when the first proposals are due from companies bidding on the digester plant or hauling the waste products to San Jose or Gilroy. The bids are to be submitted so the city can compare costs, with separate portions for design, construction, financing, ownersip and operation of an energy compost facility. The city said it would take four months to evaluate the bids, until January 2014. The proposals would then go to the City Council in February 2014.

If a bid were to be accepted, the city hopes to have a system to export biosolids, food scraps and yard trimmings in operation by 2017, while a waste-energy plant to process the waste on the landfill site would need to be up and running by Jan. 1, 2019, according to the city's latest time line.

Comments

Posted by Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 18, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

This editorial offers more smoke than necessary, and clouds the encouraging progress Council made. The city staff has been working with these various agencies and informed them of the course. Each of these agencies is excited about the vision of a project for green energy and compost. CalRecycle, the agency with the greatest stake in enforcement, and program elements that encourage just the types of project's our community is considering. Enforcement is discretionary, and the choice is balanced with benefit that aligns with the purpose of CalRecycle -- promoting waste reduction and creative reuse. CalRecycle would observe that the landfill in its current state is well maintained, and their is little doubt about the city's ability to complete the closure. They would collaborate on the design of any facility toward sealing the buried waste, but also creating in the same footprint a modern facility that symbolizes how communities can deal with their waste in ways that minimize its environmental footprint. I am a bit saddened that the vision and position that the Weekly accords projects like this is waste in such a tired editorial. Precarious - not.... Bold, innovative and leading - YES!


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 18, 2013 at 2:49 pm

>If a bid were to be accepted, the city hopes to have a system to export biosolids, food scraps and yard trimmings in operation by 2017....

"Biosolids" is a euphemism for human sewage slude. The term was the result of a national contest, run by the EPA, to take away the negative conotation of "human sewage sludge". The promise of the Zero Waste fanatics, like Bob W., was that human sewage sludge would be processed by anaerobic digestion schemes, using 10 acres of parkland. Now they are arguing for much more, because they finally realized that human sewage sludge cannot be added into the 'compost' mix, as they promised...it will need to be handled independently. Even if possible, it will require the full 10 acres, thus a much larger footprint for development.

The Zero Waste crowd simply cannot explain what they will do with the human sewage sludge, other than to truck it away, or to continue incineration. To put it another way: They did a bait and switch. Now they want an ever expanding footprint on our parklands.

This entire issue is about green politics, not real solutions.


Posted by Maybe Not, a resident of Professorville
on Jan 18, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Perhaps a petition needs to be drawn up to put this up for the vote again. There do not seem to be enough pros as opposed to cons for it


Posted by Not an issue, a resident of Community Center
on Jan 18, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Remember that bob is one of the leaders behind the bait and switch that we voted on in 2011 . Anything they say now needs to viewed as an attempt to further fool the public. We would like to see Peter weigh n on this, but we know that he will not make the effort


Posted by Bruce, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 20, 2013 at 10:47 am

It doesn't seem like the editorial writer attended or reviewed Council proceedings Monday night. The deliberations are all there on the Media Center site, judge for yourself. Web Link

Clearing the 10-acre site to build any envisioned compost facility requires moving stuff from the prospective site to the dump. Not capping all 51 acres of the dump provides maximum flexibility for repositioning this material. Once done, and contoured to optimize future park use, capping material will be brought in to finish the job.

This is by far the most efficient and cost-effective way to go. It is not a close call, as the 7-2 Council vote indicates.


Posted by An Engineer for the Environment, a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 21, 2013 at 5:30 pm

"This is by far the most efficient and cost-effective way to go."

It is also the most efficient option to maximize the greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions from the former dump. First, postpone the cap and allow methane (a ghg 30 times as potent as its famous cousin CO2) to flow freely into the atmosphere. Next, dig up the whole mess and spread it around to really get that methane flowing.

I think city hall is more interested in building expensive toys, like this one, than it is in combating global warning, pious words notwithstanding.


Posted by Sharon, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 21, 2013 at 6:06 pm


The church of al gore is dead

Gore sold his company to the PR department of a major oil state -Qatar

Nothing wrong with that in a free market-but the blatant hypocrisy of gore and his acolytes in Palo Alto

Has now ended the scam and their pantheistic cult.


Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 26, 2013 at 7:49 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

I have a few criticism of this editorial.

1. "Council decided Monday to take a precarious path that will delay transfer of any acres of landfill to Byxbee Park for more than a year and risk fines of up to $10,000 a day for not capping the old dump."

The city is not currently risking fines, the current deadline has not yet been reached and the city will try for an extension of that deadline before it is reached, such that fines should never come into play. Further, Staff was clear in the meeting with Council that they plan to line up contractors to do the cap, just in case they are not able to get an extension.

2. "... the council passed up a recommendation from staff to cap 34 acres out of the 51, which in our view would leave plenty of space — 17 acres — if the council were to decide next year to build an anaerobic-digester plant on 10 acres as laid out in Measure E."

This is incorrect. The staff recommendation to cap 34 acres would have only made 5 acres available for a facility. Under that plan, to get the full 10 acres of the measure E site, the additional excavated fill would need to be placed on parts of the landfill which would have been capped already, causing the cap to need to be redone at a cost of up to $3M, and risking that the regulatory agencies would not permit this.

3. "Capping is a state requirement to prevent harmful gases from escaping."

This is true but not the whole truth. The editorial should clarify that the existing temporary cap currently prevents harmful gases and leachate from escaping. Surface-level measurements show no detectable levels of methane.

The temporary cap consists 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 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 or 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.

The whole uncapped area is being hydroseeded such that come spring time, it will look like the rest of the park with native grasses, just no trails on it yet.

4. "[The RFP] would provide vendors until August to submit proposals to develop an anaerobic digester facility..."

To be clear, the RFP allows for not just anaerobic digestion but also gasification, which could have a smaller footprint than composting, and, depending on the type of gasification, could produce biochar which can improve soil fertility while sequestering CO2.


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