City taps brakes on new Baylands waste facility | News | Palo Alto Online |


City taps brakes on new Baylands waste facility

New approach calls for relying on other communities, slowing effort to build plant in the Baylands

Trained plant operator Tyler Longscott checks on the incinerator at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant on June 4, 2014. Voters passed Measure E in 2011 to build a facility next to the plant to convert organic waste into energy, but the city has yet to follow through with the plan. Weekly file photo.

When Palo Alto voters went to the polls in 2011 to "undedicate" 10 acres of parkland in the Baylands, they had a clear goal: to enable the city to manage its own organic waste.

The campaign leading up to the Measure E vote became a clash between two environmentalist factions, with proponents arguing that constructing a local plant would be the most sustainable course of action and opponents countering that the Palo Alto Baylands would be a poor location for a new industrial waste operation and that a more regional solution should be pursued.

The former resoundingly won the political battle in 2011, when 65 percent of the voters supported reserving the 10-acre site at Byxbee Park, next to the Regional Water Quality Control Plant, for the facility that would convert waste into energy.

But six years after the vote, it increasingly looks like the latter faction is winning the war. City officials are scaling down their plans, exploring technologies that would have a smaller footprint and increasingly looking to other communities for solutions to local waste problems.

In July 2016, Palo Alto began to ship its curbside compostables — food scraps and yard trimmings — to the new Zero Waste Energy Development Facility in north San Jose, where a dry anaerobic digestion facility turns them into energy.

When it comes to sewage waste, the City Council earlier this year approved a haul-out facility that will allow Palo Alto to dry its sewage and truck it elsewhere for processing — a far cry from the plant that Measure E envisioned.

If the shift from local to regional waste disposal seems somewhat counter to Measure E — which was launched in preparation for the 2012 closure of the city's landfill at Byxbee Park — it is. The measure stated: "Ceasing local composting will cause significant environmental impacts, as Palo Alto will have to haul yard trimmings and food waste to locations outside the City for disposal or composting, thereby generating greenhouse gases and depriving Palo Altans of both yard trimming drop-off and local compost."

The main driver for a new approach is economics. The cost estimates for the type of wet anaerobic digester that many Measure E proponents had favored in 2011 have skyrocketed, going from about $57 million at the time of the vote to about $75 million, according to a March report from the Public Works Department.

And as prices have gone up, ambitions have gone down. Staff had previously explored building anaerobic digesters with thermal hydrolysis (a process that allows more energy extraction). A June report on the city's infrastructure projects notes, however, that these facilities were "put on hold" because of the potential expense. Now, the city is taking a closer look at cheaper technologies.

One is gasification, a process that uses high temperatures and controlled amounts of oxygen to convert organic waste into gas. Last month, Silicon Valley Clean Water, a wastewater-management agency, unveiled a gasification facility of this sort at its facility in Redwood Shores as part of a 10-year contract with the Italian firm BioForceTech.

Another option is pyrolysis, a process that exposes organic waste to high temperatures without oxygen and which, in addition to energy, produces a product called biochar.

"Anaerobic digesters were put on hold due to the high cost of anaerobic digesters with thermal hydrolysis. Staff will re-evaluate long-term solids treatment options after completion of the sludge dewatering and truck load-out facility, with key alternatives to include emerging technologies such as pyrolysis and gasification. Evaluation will also include other anaerobic digestion options," the June report stated.

Phil Bobel, assistant director of Public Works, said that while the city hasn't exactly pivoted away from anaerobic digestion, the new curbside composting pickup and rising cost estimates have changed the conversation. The sentiment today, Bobel said, is that what the city does with its waste is more important than where it does it.

"We're trucking our yard trimmings and our food scraps to dry anaerobic digesters in north San Jose, so we take care of two of the three products very close to home in exactly the fashion Measure E hopes," Bobel said.

He acknowledged that this falls short of the Measure E goal of processing organic waste in a city-run plant but noted that the San Jose facility is only 15 miles away. City staff is now of the belief that the greenhouse-gases produced by trucking the materials are "really minor."

Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a Measure E proponent who served on a blue-ribbon committee that worked with staff on long-term solutions for organic waste, shares that view, though he also said he is a bit disappointed by the city's piece-meal approach to planning for a waste-to-energy facility and with how long it is taking the city to make progress.

De la Beujardiere said the committee's biggest goals was to get food waste out of the landfill. In that sense, the curbside-compostables program and the city's use of the north San Jose plant have been a success.

"Changing what we're doing is the biggest single benefit," de La Beaujardiere said.

Peter Drekmeier, former mayor and one of the leaders of the Measure E campaign, said the city probably would've been in a "better place" had it been able to move faster. Given the hot economy and high construction prices, staff's decision to hold off on the new plant is understandable, Drekmeier said.

"All the construction companies have a full plate and are able to charge top dollar," Drekmeier said.

But despite his disappointment, Drekmeier noted that the city has achieved great progress since the measure. Palo Alto no longer trucks food waste to a landfill in Gilroy and city leaders are still considering a local solution, even if it's not the one Measure E proponents had initially favored.

"There's still a chance we'll find a better technology that's cheaper, or the economy will change," Drekmeier said.

If there is one achievement that both environmentalist camps have embraced since 2011, it's the City Council's decision to retire the city's sewage-sludge-burning incinerators, a major source of greenhouse-gas emissions, and replace them with a "haul-out facility" at the water-treatment plant.

Drekmeier called the recommissioning of the incinerators a "huge benefit to the community." Emily Renzel, a former vice mayor, leading conservationist and vehement opponent of Measure E, concurred and said she looks forward to the day the incinerators are retired. She still hopes, though, that the city will be able to pursue a long-term local solution for waste without infringing on Byxbee Park.

For her, the length of time that it's taking the city to solve its waste problems could portend the ultimate victory. The 2011 measure states that the council may rededicate any portion of the 10-acre site not used for waste treatment back to parkland 10 years after the measure's passage. With no plans for a new plant in sight, time appears now on her side.

The new dewatering and truck haul-out facility is scheduled to be completed in fall of 2019, and Bobel said staff will wait until that facility is up and running before reaching any decisions on what type of plant to construct. This makes it virtually impossible for the city to have an advanced treatment plant built on the Measure E site by November 2021, the Measure E deadline.

"I'm hopeful we will get that land rededicated, since it was essentially undedicated for the specific purpose of this conversion technology," Renzel told the Weekly.

Renzel isn't exactly celebrating the city's change of course since 2011, noting that it still remains to be seen exactly what type of technology the council adopts. But she fully supports the staff's cautious approach to choosing the right waste-to-energy technology.

"Everything I've seen so far suggests they're going on a reasonable course of action," Renzel said.

Watch "Behind the Headlines" for a discussion on this topic with City Hall reporter Gennady Sheyner.


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7 people like this
Posted by Jim
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 4, 2017 at 10:06 am

There was a vibrant debate about the appropriate technology to achieve our waste disposal. It ended when the anaerobic digestion proponents used their political influence to win the day. The fix was in from the beginning. Now we have the consequences of that decision. We were promised a solution to all of our waste streams including sewage sludge. What are the realistic alternatives now?

7 people like this
Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 4, 2017 at 10:49 am

Too bad we can't email our waste problem away and then hit the delete button when our in-box is full.

5 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Aug 4, 2017 at 11:10 am

This is going so slowly that it wouldn't be surprising if newer and better solutions were developed before Palo Alto does anything.

Re the headline, one taps the "brakes", not "breaks."
Proof-reader on vacation :)?

3 people like this
Posted by Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Aug 4, 2017 at 11:12 am

Gennady Sheyner is a registered user.

Thanks, Observer. Sorry for the error. It's been fixed.


10 people like this
Posted by Carol Muller
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 4, 2017 at 11:20 am

Once again, the vote on Measure E is being misrepresented. The Measure itself was cleverly constructed by those advocating building a waste disposal facility on the lands which had previously been dedicated for parkland. It did not ask for a vote for building such a facility, but rather made the "reasonable" case that undedicating the parkland would allow for STUDY of the possibility. The vote therefore passed -- many thoughtful Palo Altans thought it reasonable to study the possibility, but had not weighed in on a decision about building such a facility. This is an important distinction.

13 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 4, 2017 at 12:12 pm

What a waste (funny pun) Measure E was. For those who went to the early study session in council chambers, before the digester was ever pushed on us as a ballot measure by a faction of zealots, the actual experts made a clear case that the technology wasn't feasible. But this message wasn't listened to then by the pushers of the digester and their unsupportable idea was foisted on voters that sounded good but wasn't ever going to be feasible. And - it was in a park! So all its done is tie up acres of parkland for 10 years.
That's the waste.

17 people like this
Posted by Jim
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 4, 2017 at 1:10 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere and Peter Drekmeier have a lot to answer for. They pushed this fiasco. As I recall, there were those who warned about the unreality of their technological approach at the time. There was a guy who really took them on. I recall that he pushed plasma arc or some other gasification approach (where is he now?).

We have been led down the primrose path by single-focus propagandists.

16 people like this
Posted by Shame on them
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 4, 2017 at 1:19 pm

Back then I called it drekmeiers folly. Looks like I was right. From the article it looks like cedric and peter are not accepting responsibility for this fiasco.

2 people like this
Posted by OK
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Aug 4, 2017 at 2:57 pm

All our waste is shipped off to San Jose! No clean-up, no mess, no worries!
Problem solved!

Like this comment
Posted by M. Driscoll
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 4, 2017 at 6:29 pm

Are we talking raw sewage treatment or garbage? There's a big difference.

6 people like this
Posted by Gary Chandler
a resident of Ventura
on Aug 5, 2017 at 11:22 am

Dumping this deadly cocktail known as "biosolids" on reclaimed mines, farms, ranches, golf courses, parks and school grounds is killing innocent people and our wildlife. It's a legitimate prion threat to livestock--as in mad cow disease. It is one of the contributing factors to chronic wasting disease. Do you know anyone with autism or Alzheimer's disease?

1. The risk assessments are fraudulent, incomplete and outdated at best. As such, the practice of land application is illegal. Prions (deadly proteins) weren't even known to science when the EPA faked the "sludge rule." Prions are unstoppable in the sterile confines of an operating room, so they are clearly unstoppable in the high-volume, low-tech operations of your local wastewater treatment plant;

2. Because of prions (discharged from people with prion disease), biosolids are infectious waste. It's illegal to dump infectious waste on land; and

3. Given the two assertions above, biosolids dumped on land are a clear violation of the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002. Biosolids are fueling the spike in autism, Alzheimer's, chronic wasting disease, Zika virus, West Nile virus, valley fever and more. It's time to send some bioterrorists to jail and prosecute some public servants for treason. Web Link

Sewage sludge consists of anything that you or a terrorist can dump down the toilet or the storm drain, including radioactive material, carcinogens, pharmaceuticals and every transmissible disease known to humans. It will be dumped on a farm tomorrow where it will contaminate food and water with a deadly nerve agent, endocrine disrupters and more. Sewage sludge isn't fertilizer. It's bioterrorism. Just look at Kern County. It's drowning in sewage sludge from LA and the residents are contracting valley fever at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, that isn't the only health concern for people, wildlife and livestock.

3 people like this
Posted by Jim
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 5, 2017 at 3:59 pm

Sewage sludge should not be used as a fertilizer...period. Toxin just build up in the soil. It is my understanding, though, that all the organic molecules can be destroyed in very high temperature reactors, such as plasma arc, with the added benefit of positive electricity output. The inorganic materials are turned to slag, which is sterile and useful for a variety of industrial products. There was a guy on this site that made this argument, very strongly, when this debate was going on, but he seems to have disappeared.

5 people like this
Posted by Creighton Beryl
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 5, 2017 at 4:40 pm

"... all the organic molecules can be destroyed in very high temperature reactors, such as plasma arc, with the added benefit of positive electricity output. The inorganic materials are turned to slag, which is sterile and useful for a variety of industrial products"

We still await a valid scientific/engineering analysis of those claims. We do not hold our breath while we wait.

Like this comment
Posted by Jim
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 5, 2017 at 9:20 pm

@ Creighton Beryl:

>We still await a valid scientific/engineering analysis of those claims. We do not hold our breath while we wait.

@ Creighton Beryl: We now know that the composting facility is dead. It never passed your criteria of scientific/engineering (and cost)analysis. The various gasification approaches make a lot more sense, and they have already been tried in a number of places, to my knowledge. What are your criteria?

Do you think our city of Palo Alto will go to a gasification method? Also, do you happen to remember the name of that guy who argued so strongly for plasma arc gasification? I can't remember his name, but he was really into it.

3 people like this
Posted by Creighton Beryl
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 6, 2017 at 4:24 pm

"Do you think our city of Palo Alto will go to a gasification method?"

Not if it's smart. That said, who knows.

Whatever the merits of plasmification, Palo Alto is much better off joining a regional consortium, as it is wisely presently doing, than building its own boutique plant.

"Also, do you happen to remember the name of that guy who argued so strongly for plasma arc gasification?"

No, but he has posted several times since. Stay tuned.

1 person likes this
Posted by Jim
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 6, 2017 at 7:10 pm

It took me some time to figure out who the guy was that argued against anaerobic digestion and in favor of gasification methods, specially plasma arc. His name is Craig Laughton. Too bad we didn't listen to him back then. Now that the anaerobic digestion method had been found to be too expensive and lacking in full solutions, we need to go back to the drawing board.

I just posted an early thread has the basic arguments.

Like this comment
Posted by UdyRegan
a resident of another community
on Aug 14, 2017 at 7:48 pm

UdyRegan is a registered user.

I'm really surprised that more cities don't take a page from the books of the European countries and facilities that are doing very well with waste management and treatment. There is so much more that we can do with all this trash in storage if we know where to look for examples of what to do with it in a more efficient manner!

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