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Palo Alto settles suit over compost plant

Original post made on Dec 3, 2012

The City of Palo Alto has reached a settlement with a group of environmentalists who had filed a lawsuit challenging a proposal to build a waste-to-energy facility in the Baylands.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Monday, December 3, 2012, 9:54 AM

Comments (22)

Posted by If All Else Fails--Sue-'Em!, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2012 at 10:48 am

> The settlement commits the city to conduct the environmental review
> process "in a manner that will permit the public to review and
> comment on the City's environmental work before the City issues a
> permit for the Facility."

If the goal of the lawsuit was to overturn the results of the Measure E vote--this settlement doesn't come close to achieving that goal.

Makes one wonder what Jordan, et al, were trying to gain from filing the suit--other than getting on the City's mailing list?


Posted by the_punnisher, a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 3, 2012 at 11:00 am

the_punnisher is a registered user.

Ever heard of a SLAPP suit? You have a classic example here.
What is really wanted is to put the system next to City Hall with it's unending flow of bull fecal matter....


Posted by Edward I, a resident of Addison School
on Dec 3, 2012 at 11:36 am

In response to If All Else Fails--Sue-'Em! and the_punnisher [sic], I suspect that your assertions about Mr. Jordan's motives are misplaced. As an attorney, Mr. Jordan would have been aware that he was entitled to be placed on the City's notice list at his request (although some cities are less diligent about maintaining their notice lists, which perhaps was Mr. Jordan's concern).

And as for SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation), Mr. Jordan's suit was definitely not such a suit. The "classic example" of a SLAPP suit is a counter-suit by a public agency or a project applicant against a member of the public who has challenged the agency or the applicant in court--in other words, an attempt by the agency or applicant to use the court system to harass or intimidate a critic. In this case, Mr. Jordan was the critic who would actually have been protected by anti-SLAPP rules.


Posted by Good news, a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 3, 2012 at 11:55 am

Tom Jordan is an honest and realistic land use attorney.
Drekmeier and Hays have unlimited funds and a cult of zealots behind them who don't give a hoot about park land. The city agreed to do an environmental review. Hallelujah, they will obey the law.
Yes there still are honest people around. I know who I trust.


Posted by JerryL, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Dec 3, 2012 at 12:03 pm

To this day I cannot understand WHY the dump (and composting operation)
could not have expanded to the N, S, E or West (or even vertically) and kept on operating for another 20++ years.


Posted by tiredofwastingtimeand money, a resident of Palo Verde School
on Dec 3, 2012 at 12:34 pm

For christ sake! Why did we have to spend the money and time that this took. I may be niave, but wouldn't an environmental inpact report w/mitigations have been required, and if not, wouldn't it have been demanded as part of any possible going-forward effort. Note, any real action was contingent on SUCH A FACILITY BEING SHOWN TO BE ECONOMICALLY FESABLE. And what in Palo Alto is not reviewed endlessly anyway? I am not necessarily pro or con, but decry the waste of time and money this took.



The city, meanwhile, has agreed to perform an environmental review before issuing any regulatory permits "for the purpose of identifying significant environmental impacts and imposing appropriate mitigation measure." The settlement commits the city to conduct the environmental review process "in a manner that will permit the public to review and comment on the City's environmental work before the City issues a permit for the Facility."


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 3, 2012 at 12:38 pm

>The facility would convert food waste, yard trimmings and possibly biosolids into energy.

The original notion was that human sewage slduge (euphemistically called 'biosolids')would be taken care of by the anaerobic digestion (AD) industrial plant in our Baylands. Now, we are being warned that human sewage sludge (HSS) may not be part of the mix. This is a bait and switch. Nobody really wants HSS in their compost, once they understand what is in it (many various toxins).

So, what happens to the HSS? Continue incineration? Truck it away, at high cost? Thermal destruction (e.g. plasma arc, as I prefer)?

If the HSS element cannot be explained, then this AD fiasco should not be built. We Palo Altans cannot afford it...we already have too many unfunded mandates.


Posted by Anon, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 3, 2012 at 1:20 pm

thank god for Mr. Jordan! honesty and perseverance are in short supply in this city


Posted by Henry, a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 3, 2012 at 1:24 pm

City would not have conducted an environmental review without this law suit. They would have claimed that the project had no significant impacts and issued a Negative Declaration or a Mitigated Negative Declaration. Just a slight of hand makes the environmental impacts disappear.

Thank you Tom Jordan!


Posted by jm, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 3, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Agree with Henry's observation.

Many members of the public assume the city follows the law when it comes to legally required environmental impact reviews. Not so, as I found out first hand when I was involved in a project that required an (inconvenient) EIR.

City staff sometimes appear to be co-opted by powerful, dominating, influential, personalities with great powers of persuasion, with whom they have to interact. Being persuaded to support quietly ignoring the city's Comprehensive Plan for powerful interests seems to have become the norm.


Posted by Lin, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 3, 2012 at 8:26 pm

How much noise pollution will this plant create? It's finally a quiet natural park for animals and people with that other noisy operation finally gone. Why put a commercial operations THERE? I hope not. There needs to be a place where it can blend in.


Posted by Not in Favor, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 3, 2012 at 9:09 pm

What amazes me is that this potentially hugely expensive and unproven technology was passed by the voters and has given Drekmeier & Co. a green light to go ahead with their crazy scheme.

All those that voted for it are going to be shocked to find out just how expensive collecting and converting their green waste is going to be, and they are going to have to pay for it because I shall be long gone!!!


Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 4, 2012 at 5:00 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Whatever Mr. Jordan's merits in his professional, personal, and environmental life, in the case of this suit he was just plain wrong.

I'm glad this baseless lawsuit is finally settled. His suit basically complained that there was insufficient notice to the public that Measure E would go on the ballot. Yeah, right. This debate has been on going since 2009, with Mr. Jordan right in the forefront along with the other contenders, pro and con. There was plenty of notice that this was going to a vote, and beside which, the City didn't have a choice once we had collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Jordan and friends couldn't win in Council (despite a lot of close 4-5 splits), they couldn't win at the ballot box (a crushing 2-to-1 defeat), and so they hoped to win in the court room. In the end, all they have accomplished is to waste their and the city's time and money. The EIRs were already required and anticipated by the city, as evidenced by many staff reports on the subject. Jordan was already on the mailing list since at least mid 2009 (I have been too, so I just checked and he's there).

The city is preparing a Request For Proposals, and you can check out the status and get involved (pro or con) at Web Link


To address a few comments from above:

There is no other site in Palo Alto where this can be accomplished (I was on the task force, we tried to find anywhere other than there). The site is already next to the noisy and smelly sewage treatment plant and the noisy airport.

Measure E was about the site, not the technology. The RFP does not dictate technology, but will allow for Dry or Wet Anaerobic Digestion (AD) or Gasification (which includes Craig Laughton's favored Plasma Arc), and possibly other technologies. Wet AD is very much a proven and common technology.

The feasibility study indicated savings of $1-2M/year by processing our organics locally into energy and compost rather than shipping them away. The RFP will be the real evidence from real vendors, and I look forward to those responses.


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 4, 2012 at 10:24 am

>Measure E was about the site, not the technology

Not really. Your zero-waste [portion removed by Palo Alto Online stafff] group will make sure, politically, that no technology, other than organic digestion (wet or dry, although the story keeps changing).

Simple question: How will Palo Alto dispose of its human sewage sludge? [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by the_punnisher, a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 4, 2012 at 12:29 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

A legitimate comment: It's just like a lawyer type to twist words to obscure and confuse the facts:

ANYONE CAN AND DOES USE A SLAPP SUIT TO FURTHER THEIR GOALS/AGENDA!

It's not only used by one side; EVERYONE can and will use a SLAPP suit if it does what the think is needed...don't use FUD tactics here....


Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 4, 2012 at 3:01 pm

I still don't see the light on the digester and am thankful for old-timers like Tom Jordan, Emily Renzel and Enid Pearson for their diligence. (and when they come up with a "diligence digester" or worse a "diligence digester drone" then we are really up HSS-creek!).

I wonder if the timing of this is such that fearing that Jordan is right and referendums "short-circuit" the process that leadership backed down from the June Arrillaga Office Towers ballot...

Never underestimate what a small group of butterflies et cetera...


Posted by rah rah rah, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 4, 2012 at 4:12 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 4, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Where will the human sewage sludge go?


Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 5, 2012 at 3:20 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Currently it is incinerated, burning $800,000 worth of natural gas each year, and costing another $200,000 to dispose of the ash. For a time, the city was considering replacing the aging incinerator with a more efficient (Fluidized Bed) incinerator, but this still would mean putting energy/money in to incinerate. Fiscal conservatives and Environmentalists alike should be happy that Council has directed that the incinerator should be decommissioned as soon as an alternative is in place, rather than waiting for the old one to reach its end of life.

What will happen to the sewage instead of incineration is dependent upon the responses received once the RFP goes out, how they compare to each other, what options the community supports, and ultimately what option the Council decides to go with.

It might be Anaerobically Digested, which is what most sewage treatment plants do, and generates energy instead of burning it. The residuals after digestion might be sent to a landfill, or composted, or turned into biochar, or sent through a gasification system (gasified?), etc... Or it could be that the sewage is directed from the start to a gasification system, or another process. It depends on what technologies are proposed in the RFP and how economical, efficient, and environmental they are.

Plasma Arc (a form of gasification) might be super efficient for dry organics like tires and plastics, but sewage is ~70%-80% water (IIRC), so you either have to dewater the sewage first or waste energy turning water into steam, so Plasma Arc is not as efficient for sewage as it is for dry inputs. At least there is the current dewatering mechanism which precedes the incinerator, and that machinery might be reusable, though of course it takes energy and money to operate and maintain.

The upside of plasma arc is it apparently destroys all pollutants, and you get out energy and slag. One downside is that there is no nutrient recycling, which is a critical need which the European EPA-equivalent has identified.

I know you like Plasma Arc, so the best thing you could do is find reputable Plasma Arc companies and put them in touch with the city so they can be notified when the RFP goes out.

Personally, I like Biochar, as it improves soil fertility and sequesters carbon.


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 5, 2012 at 2:39 pm

> One downside is that there is no nutrient recycling, which is a critical need which the European EPA-equivalent has identified.

How do you propose to eliminate various toxins that are present in those composts that contain the nutrients? Where, specifically, do you propose to apply such toxin-bearing material?

It is worth bearing in mind that San Francisco banned distribution of such materials, even though it used to hand it out for free.


Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 5, 2012 at 4:30 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

My understanding of the SF case is that the compost was labeled as organic, which by the definition of "a compound that contains carbon" is strictly correct, but it is misleading because regular people think that means Certified Organic. So there was a broo-ha-ha and a backlash which may have been avoidable if they had marketed their product more clearly.

You assume that our sewage is heavily contaminated, but that is not necessarily correct. The Sewage Plant's service area is mostly low-density residential, commercial, and office, with a diminishing number of industrial activities. In addition, the city has a program for reducing pollutants at the source, before they go into storm or sewer drains. Thus, metals contamination, for instance, has declined in the last two decades. A full report of monitoring of the inputs/outputs of the plant can be found here: Web Link . I do not have the bandwidth to research the acceptable levels of each contaminant and compare them with the actual levels. Please feel free to dig through that and report back any findings of significant hazardous levels.


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 6, 2012 at 6:41 pm

>My understanding of the SF case is that the compost was labeled as organic, which by the definition of "a compound that contains carbon" is strictly correct, but it is misleading because regular people think that means Certified Organic. So there was a broo-ha-ha and a backlash which may have been avoidable if they had marketed their product more clearly.

No, Cedric, the SF deal was about human sewage sludge, inlcuding all the toxins being included in the mix. Yes, it was also a labeling and transparency issue, thus a marketing issue, but if human sewage sludge did not contain toxins it would not have been an issue. There is no way to eliminate all the various toxins that go down the drain to our sewage treatment plants. These toxins end up in the sewage sludge. Then they either get destroyed or contained (e.g, plasma arc), or (anaerobic digestion...AD) they get spread over our gardens/farms/golf courses/parks, etc.

This AD approach is a public relations disaster...it will not sell!

What is your calculation on the economic and carbon costs of having to dump the residue from the AD 'solution'? Please include the dumping fees and transportation costs, as well as the carbon produced along the way.


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