Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 2, 2014

Compromise difficult in compost debate

Local environmentalists divided over proposal for city operation to treat organic waste

by Gennady Sheyner

After a brief respite, Palo Alto's leading environmentalists are once again clashing over the future of local composting — a debate that brought a crowd to Tuesday's City Council meeting.

With no compromise in sight, the council agreed to defer a decision to a later date.

The latest round in the city's long and complex battle over how to handle the city's organic waste was prompted by a new recommendation from city staff to reject all three proposals that the city has received from the private sector for overhauling the city's process. Instead, staff proposed having the city take charge of building and operating a new waste-to-energy facility, which would first process sewage sludge and then in a second phase treat food scraps. Only later would staff deal with the city's yard trimmings, potentially through a different process.

The recommendation, at least in concept, initially seemed to bring closer together the two camps of environmentalists who clashed in November 2011 over Measure E, a successful measure that "undedicated" 10 acres of parkland in the Baylands and made the land available for an anaerobic-digestion plant. The debate had pitted environmentalists who wanted to keep a composting operation local against conservationists who argued against building an anaerobic digester in the Baylands.

During a brief discussion in February, speakers from both camps praised staff's proposal as a promising one, particularly in its determination that only about 3.8 acres of the Measure E site would be needed for a composting operation. But the enthusiasm has cooled considerably in recent weeks, as staff released more details and supporters of Measure E realized that under the new timeline, the yard-trimmings portion wouldn't be in place until 2022. Residents who supported the Baylands anaerobic digester also challenged staff's economic analysis, which they said understates the costs of a city-run operation. They urged the council not to reject the proposals to build a Baylands plant from the firms Harvest Power and We Generation (a third proposal from the firm Synagro entailed exporting all three waste streams).

Faced with pressure from Measure E supporters, Public Works staff on Tuesday morning issued an alternative recommendation. The last-minute proposal would reject the private-sector offers but also calls for the immediate issuance of a new request for proposals for waste management, with a provision that explicitly states the city's desire to use the Measure E site for composting of yard waste. The recommendation irked conservationists who opposed Measure E.

Shani Kleinhaus, environmental advocate for the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, praised the original plan proposed by staff — a plan that would not use the Measure E site in the near term.

"Now, it's completely changed again," Kleinhaus said of the 11th-hour recommendation, noting that her organization will probably oppose it.

Emily Renzel, who led the opposition to Measure E, likewise praised staff's initial recommendation and panned the Tuesday alternative, which places a greater emphasis on compost and the 10-acre site. She said the original plan succeeded in merging two separate goals: building facilities to treat biosolids (and thereby retire the city's sludge-burning incinerators) and coming up with a way to process the other two streams of organic waste. Staff's proposed Organic Management Plan, she said, "makes efficient use of city resources, including land."

She criticized the city for introducing the alternative recommendation Tuesday morning.

"It has been most distressing to have a last-minute substitute presented by staff after at least four months of participating in what was supposedly a collaborative process," said Renzel, who was one of nearly 80 residents at the meeting. "Some of us in the community feel betrayed by this latest change outside of the public eye."

This feeling of betrayal was the only thing that united the two sides on Tuesday. Proponents of Measure E said the initial staff proposal, which saves composting for the final phase, runs counter to the wishes of 65 percent of voters — those who supported the measure.

"If you decide to keep composting in Palo Alto, you will have the support of a huge majority of the citizens," said Carolyn Curtis, who helped lead the Measure E drive.

Some residents submitted letters with similar sentiments. Jeffrey Hook argued that "local processing of all of our compostable materials makes the most ecological sense and therefore the most economic sense."

Former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, another Measure E campaign leader, said he was puzzled by staff's assertion that a local composting operation cannot be put in place before 2020 or 2022. He said he and his group, Palo Alto Green Energy, opposed staff's prior recommendation but can accept the Tuesday addition "in the spirit of compromise."

"We appreciate that it does address the issue of compost," Drekmeier said of the new recommendation. "It's really important to send a strong message to staff that the people voted to undedicate the Measure E (land), to make it available. That is the site where we should put the composting."

The latest skirmish in the simmering environmentalist feud flummoxed the council and Public Works staff, who just weeks earlier felt like they were getting close to an agreement. Phil Bobel, assistant director of Public Works, said staff had thought its initial recommendation would strike a compromise and "would get us through these landmines out there without running into them."

"The closer we got to tonight, the more we realized that we didn't have that," Bobel said.

Staff responded by crafting an alternative, Bobel said, only to learn that conservationists are "vehemently opposed" to the revised proposal.

When Councilman Karen Holman observed that the two sides seemed close to a compromise just two months ago and asked what happened, she didn't get any clear answers. City Manager James Keene noted that "there's a difference of opinion in the community" and that "there's never a guarantee" that people will agree on everything until the process gets closer to the conclusion.

The council Tuesday did agree on one thing: to defer any decisions to a future date. Given that staff's alternative recommendation was just released earlier that day, Councilman Larry Klein proposed at the beginning of the discussion that the council not take any action. His colleagues quickly agreed and unanimously voted to delay action until a future meeting, possibly as early as May 12.

"I've learned a lot in my 15 months on the council but on top of the list is how important process is to Palo Alto, especially when it comes to contentious issues and important issues, and this issue is clearly both," Councilman Marc Berman said.

Meanwhile, Harvest Power and We Generation continue to hold out hope that they'll ultimately be selected. On Tuesday, the two companies submitted a joint letter to the council in which they disputed staff's cost projections for a city-led operation and offered to work together on a proposal that would meet all of Palo Alto's needs. The existing proposals, the two companies wrote in a joint letter, have "everything in place to move ahead immediately in implementing a state-of-the-art facility."

The city's proposed process, they wrote, creates the potential for higher costs, could lead to a longer project completion schedule and could bring "inefficiencies in communication and job completion." They also wrote that if "something doesn't work properly regarding price, schedule, or performance, the potential exists for the designer to point to the construction contractor for poor performance and for the construction contractor to point to poor design."

"Resulting disputes must be resolved by the city and ultimately may lead to the city paying to 'fix' the problem," the letter states, describing a situation that very closely resembles Palo Alto's recent struggles to complete the new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center.

Paul Sellew, founder of Harvest Power, said he agrees with the goals of the city's plan for organic waste but argued that the partnership of his firm and We Generation could produce the results far faster. The partnership could create and support a facility that takes care of all three waste streams by 2018 at the latest, he said. Tom Bintz, representing We Generation, also asked the council to consider the private-sector solution on the table.

"We want to see the city have a showcase facility that exceeds expectations," Bintz said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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