Building a Palo Alto center that converts waste to energy pits environmentalists against each other

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Palo Alto’s environmentalists are locked in a fierce battle over plans to construct a compost-to-energy facility in Byxbee Park. Their opponents? Other environmentalists.

“It’s green vs. green,” says Walt Hays, a retired attorney at the center of the campaign to create a waste-to-energy facility over the city’s former landfill.

If the City Council approves the project, the center will be built on the land at the end of Embarcadero Road. The goal would be to convert residential waste materials like food scraps and yard trimmings into clean energy through a process like anaerobic digestion, where organic materials are broken down by micro-organisms.

Hays has championed this plant from the very beginning and chaired the 2006 Green Ribbon Task Force, a citizen committee that called on Palo Alto reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He views climate change as the nation’s greatest environmental threat and hopes that a local energy facility could cut down on waste and emissions by eliminating the trucks carrying the city’s garbage to Gilroy.

“The basic principle is that people should handle their own waste and not ship it away for someone else,” he says.  He hopes that Palo Alto can become a regional leader in this field.

Environmental activist Walt Hays at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. (photo: Riva Gold/ Peninsula Press)
Environmental activist Walt Hays at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. (photo: Riva Gold/ Peninsula Press)

Though the project now has wide public support, Hays initially fought a losing battle when the Public Works department proposed an Environmental Service Center on the Baylands in 2005. The City Council voted down the initiative 5-4, as conservationist opponents worried about damaging the parkland.

“It was a lone-ranger operation at first,” Hays recalled.

Soon after, Hays joined a steering committee called Palo Alto Green Energy with environmentalists and activists including former mayor Peter Drekmeier.

Hays’ role was to fundraise since he had a wide circle of contacts in the business world.

The group also began to recruit more supporters and spread their message through a listserv. Public opinion began to shift as fundraising and environmental education campaigns were underway.

“One of the things we persuaded council to do was hire a consultant to do a feasibility study,” Hays said. “The consultant said environmental problems could be solved without too much difficulty and it would save money.”

In 2011, Palo Alto Green Energy decided to put the issue to a vote.  Hays used his legal expertise to draft Measure E, which asked residents whether they wanted to undedicate 10 acres of parkland in Byxbee Park and instead use the land to build a facility that would process yard trimmings, food waste, and other organic materials.

The committee gathered the 6,000 signatures needed to get a measure on the November ballot.

“We recruited our friends to work on it, and had 60 or 70 people gathering signatures,” Hays recalls. “Those people continue to help today.”

In November of 2011, Measure E passed with 64.3 percent of the vote. For advocates of a waste-to-energy facility, this was only the beginning of a long process.

More than a year later, the city has yet to determine whether such a project would be desirable or financially feasible.

“We have an ongoing challenge,” says Hays. “It’s never finished.”

At a heated public meeting on January 14, staff initially recommended capping 34 acres of the landfill and postponing the capping of an additional 17 acres. Land capping, which is required by the state, is a process that prevents harmful gases from escaping by creating a barrier between contaminated soil and the surface of the land. This would leave just 5 acres of land for a future waste-energy facility at Byxbee, which many argued could render the project unfeasible.

Hays spoke at the meeting and urged the Council to defer capping until it was clear how much space an energy-waste facility might need. “If capped, it could take $3 million to uncap it if we need to, and we might not even get a permit to uncap it,” he said. Hays said the best solution was to postpone the process until Council had the information it needed.

Prior to the meeting, Hays and fellow Measure E advocates circulated emails to their listserv about the issue with key facts and arguments against land capping, prompting several concerned residents to email the council to ask for a postponement.

While many residents spoke in favor of cap deferral, others stressed that the land needed to be capped and returned as parkland as soon as possible. Emily Renzel, former council member and coordinator of the Baylands Conservation Committee, worried about the costs of creating such a facility on the Baylands. “They’re giving an acre of our parkland to a private development company for a ridiculously low price,” she said.

Renzel led the Measure E opposition campaign alongside fellow former council member Enid Pearson. She continues to oppose the construction of a facility at Byxbee, stressing that the project would be very destructive to the park and would not necessarily cut down on costs or carbon emissions.

“If they have to excavate 10 acres of old garbage and don’t want to pay to haul it to another landfill, then they must change the configuration of the remaining park to something awful,” Renzel said, explaining that even if the city minimized garbage excavation, it would require the creation of tall plateaus that would obstruct the view of the park.

Palo Alto City Manager James Keene said the city faces a difficult balancing act between “second generation environmentalists” who voted to approve Measure E, and the desire to preserve the Baylands, which were rescued and revived by the “first generation of environmental activists” in Palo Alto and the Bay Area.

By the meeting’s end, council voted 7-2 in favor of seeking regulatory approval to postpone the capping of the former landfill. The city wants to keep all options on the table for a waste-to-energy facility.

Greg Bell, a resident who attended the meeting, said that while he was very pleased to see the council vote to clear the path for the anaerobic digestion system, he wished the democratic process around the issue could proceed at a faster pace.

Keene also expressed support for the decision after the meeting, noting that “the city of Palo Alto is one of the leading global centers for innovation and technology.” He said the city has received a fair volume of emails and speakers any time this issue is on the agenda “and even in the background.”  The topic has drawn the attention of highly educated and informed private citizens and environmental groups on both sides.

Hays says lobbyists on both sides have also been involved in campaigning activities for council members and other officials, making it clear that the issue is very important to them.

As the council prepares to seek regulatory approval for its decision to delay capping the landfill, Hays says he has already made direct contact with members of key regulatory agencies who need to approve capping deferrals. At the city council meeting, Hays said he had spoken to a local assemblyman to help get CalRecycle, The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, to approve the request.

The city also decided to issue a Request for Proposals for the project and will evaluate all the options for facilities and waste export by February, 2014.

For now, Hays is focused on doing all he can to make sure the city progresses towards its zero waste goals. He has worked to develop environmentally sustainable policies since the 1970s, taking on a variety of ambitious environmental projects in partnership with schools, businesses and likeminded citizens.

“Once all these greenhouse gas emissions get into the air, it takes hundreds of years to go away,” he says. “Our kids and grandkids would suffer for our not taking action now.”

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