Growing up in Palo Alto, I was strongly influenced by our community's environmental values. Curbside recycling, energy and water conservation, bicycling and enjoying world class parks and wildlife preserves were a way of life.
After college, I returned to my hometown to work on the first global Earth Day campaign. The international Earth Day 1990 office was headquartered right here in Palo Alto. As Issues Coordinator, I wrote fact sheets, with the first one focusing on climate change.
Back then, I was a little more idealistic. I wanted to save the Earth. Now, my more modest goal is to give future generations a fighting chance. Climate change is disrupting everything, and it won't be solved easily. Every action we take now to curb greenhouse gas emissions provides a little more hope for our children and those who come next.
As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states, "There's a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all." It continues, "Impacts on some ecosystems are approaching irreversibility."
Palo Alto is a leader in climate protection, but there's a lot more we can do. In 2007, while I was serving on the City Council, notice was given that our municipal landfill was almost full and nearing the end of its life. Our recycling center and composting facility at the site would be closed, and our yard waste would get trucked down to Gilroy. Many of us were concerned about the impact of hauling our waste such a long distance for another community to take care of.
At the recommendation of our Planning and Transportation Commission, the council initiated a blue ribbon task force of community experts to explore options for handling all three of our organic waste streams — yard clippings, food scraps and sewage sludge — in an environmentally friendly way. The task force recommended anaerobic digestion, a process that uses microorganisms in an oxygen-free environment to break down organic waste into renewable biogas and compost.
The city then commissioned a feasibility study to explore the viability of an anaerobic digester. The results were promising. The challenge was that we didn't have a location for a facility. The logical site was on a small part of the soon-to-be-closed landfill next to the sewage treatment plant. But the dump was scheduled to become parkland upon closure, and the city's Park Dedication Ordinance required a public vote to convert parkland to a different use.
That's where the community stepped in. Led by Palo Altans for Green Energy and Compost, more than 6,000 signatures were collected to place Measure E on to the 2011 ballot. The initiative asked voters whether 10 acres of the 126-acre landfill site should "be removed from dedication as parkland, for the exclusive purpose of building a facility for converting yard trimmings, food waste, other municipal organics and/or sewage sludge from the regional wastewater treatment plant by biological and/or other environmentally equally protective technology."
Endorsed by the Democratic, Republican and Green parties, as well as the League of Women Voters, Acterra and many other respected organizations and individuals, Measure E was approved by 65% of the voters.
In 2014, the city decided not to move forward on an anaerobic digester but did make several improvements to the way we manage organic waste. Our sewage sludge incinerators were retired and replaced by a dewatering and haul-out facility. Our food and yard wastes are now trucked to an anaerobic digester in San Jose. We should celebrate these accomplishments and focus on the next step toward carbon neutrality by 2030 — the primary goal of Palo Alto's Sustainability and Climate Action Plan (S/CAP).
Currently, our dewatered sewage sludge is trucked to the Central Valley, where it is applied to agricultural land as a soil amendment. This method of disposal is problematic for several reasons. In particular, as the sludge decomposes, it releases methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. Furthermore, the sludge contains toxic PFAS, also known as "forever chemicals," which are the subject of increasing concern and regulation.
There are much better alternatives to land disposal of sewage sludge. For example, just up the road in Redwood City, Silicon Valley Clean Water is using pyrolysis to convert sewage sludge into renewable biogas and biochar, a soil amendment that sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. Pyrolysis heats up organic waste in an oxygen-free environment, a process that also destroys PFAS.
On Monday, April 3, Council will consider a recommendation from the Parks and Recreation Commission to convert the Measure E site to "parkland," as allowed for 10 years after the passage of Measure E. This would be a huge mistake. Council should at least receive input from the Utilities Advisory Commission and/or the Planning and Transportation Commission on potential uses for the site to help the city achieve our S/CAP goals.
It's always good to have options. It's always bad to take options off the table before you know what they are.
Peter Drekmeier has been working on environmental issues for 35 years. He was a founder of Bay Area Action (now Acterra) and a former mayor of Palo Alto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about the Measure E site is posted at ClimateActionPA.org.