Setting the Record Straight - Refuting the Opposition's Misleading Statements

Opponents of Measure E have been running a campaign based on fear, uncertainty and doubt to scare people into voting no. Don’t be fooled. Here are the facts:

False Claim: Measure E is risky.

FACT: Measure E only makes the land available for further exploration of a waste-to-energy facility. It does not determine a specific technology, nor require that a facility be built if the expected benefits don’t materialize. It involves zero risk.

The real risk is giving up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to process Palo Alto’s organic waste locally in a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way. Measure E provides options.

False Claim: Measure E would be expensive.

FACT: According to the financial scenario deemed most realistic by staff, anaerobic digestion (including building a facility) would likely save the City $18 million over the first 20 years, and substantially more after that. The projected Year 20 cost for anaerobic digestion is $53 per ton, vs. $123 per ton for the export option favored by opponents of Measure E.

Opponents base their argument on a large, overkill technology, that is unnecessary for Palo Alto’s needs. Staff has stated, “It is likely that the lower cost options would provide a suitable system for the City with the quantities of food scraps and yard trimmings available in the City.”

Opponents include a rent charge in their figures that is eight times that proposed by the City’s independent assessor. Since Palo Alto owns the land, rent only shifts money from ratepayers to the General Fund. It’s up to Council how much rent would be charged. No rent is charged for the sewage treatment plant or the airport.

False Claim: Palo Alto already has a viable means of processing its organic waste.

FACT: Palo Alto currently incinerates its sewage sludge at a cost of more than $1.5 million per year. Building a replacement incinerator, which would be necessary to continue this process, would cost $314 million.

Opponents argue that Palo Alto should use wet anaerobic digestion only for sewage sludge, and truck our yard and food waste to Gilroy and San Jose at a cost of $2 million per year. This would be a huge mistake!

Wet anaerobic digestion (WAD) for a combination of sewage sludge and food waste, followed by aerobic composting of the residue with yard waste, would reduce trucking and disposal costs while significantly boosting our production of renewable energy. This process is used successfully in hundreds of communities, including the East Bay Municipal Utilities District in Oakland.

False Claim: The technology is unproven.

FACT: Measure E does not specify a particular technology. The direction we take will be up to City Council following thorough review of all the options. A likely scenario is wet anaerobic digestion of sewage sludge and food waste followed by aerobic composting of the residue with some yard waste. This process is being successfully employed in hundreds of communities.

False Claim: A waste-to-energy facility would create noise and odors

FACT: Measure E states, “The Facility shall include all feasible methods for mitigating any significant environmental impacts identified during environmental review, including visual, sound and odor.” The City’s consultant studied a fully enclosed facility operating with a vacuum, so air would get sucked in and filtered before being released. In Europe, some anaerobic digesters are located in residential neighborhoods.

Misleading Photos: Opponents of Measure E show photos of pristine wetlands, suggesting these areas are at risk.

 The land covered by Measure E is 10 acres (8%) of the dump, right next to the sewage treatment plant. It could never be returned to wetlands or native wildlife habitat.  Here is a recent photo of the actual site: 

Opponents’ Claim: Environmental review hasn’t been done.

FACT: There’s no project on the table, so there’s nothing to study. If City Council moves forward with a project, full environmental review and permitting will be required. Former Assemblymember John Knox, who authored the California Environmental Quality Act, has endorsed Measure E.

Opponents’ Claim: 
Installing an anaerobic digestion facility would require “digging up more than 3.5 million cubic feet of old garbage, spreading it across remaining parkland, and releasing tons of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.”

FACT: Measure E only allows up to 10 acres of the landfill to be used. It will be up to City Council how large the physical facility would be, and most of the site is flat. Some potential technologies, such as static aerated piles to compost food and yard waste, would not require excavation.

If we did need to excavate some garbage, it could be sent to the Kirby Canyon landfill where Palo Alto already is committed to pay for disposing of more garbage than we generate. The amount of garbage opponents cite is equal to the amount of food and yard waste the City would have to truck away EVERY YEAR if Measure E fails.

Much of the 10 acres is flat, so excavation would be minimal if at all.
  • The amount that might have to be excavated is tiny compared to the existing dump (120,000 cubic yards out of 7.6 million). 
  • The excavated material would not be spread over the whole park. It would cover only about 10 acres, leaving 106 acres of untouched park. 
  • Regulations would not permit excavated garbage to be sprinkled all over the park and left in plain sight. Instead, they would require that it be buried under a sealing cap to prevent water infiltration, and no park user would ever see it. 
  • Significant release of methane typically begins only after aerobic composting depletes oxygen, one or two years after disposal. 
  • The landfill would be re-capped and plumbed to collect the methane, utilizing it to generate electricity, so actual emissions would be negligible. 
Below is an image of the site (in dark blue) with the Landfill's contour lines (pale purple) and elevations (dark blue).  Opponents say that within the site only the road is flat and "the rest of the site is a contoured 52' high hill".  As you can see for yourself, that is clearly an exaggeration: The 50' contour line barely reaches the far corners of the site.  About half the site is flat with a 10' base elevation, the other half is gently sloped, and the average height of the back edge is about 45'.
Measure E Site In Context of Landfill Contours

False Claim: Measure E would allow a factory to be built in our park. 

FACT: Anaerobic digestion, the most likely technology, uses microorganisms in enclosed containers to break down organic waste into biogas (green energy) and compost. This biological process has existed in nature for billions of years. The facility studied by the City’s consultant would be fully enclosed, with state-of-the-art noise and odor controls. There would be no assembly lines, smokestacks or other features associated with factories.

False Claim: Once the land is undedicated, it could be used for anything. 

FACT: Measure E clearly states, “The Property shall 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.” The City attorney has confirmed that the site could not be used for any other purpose.

Want to help the campaign, share these facts either by linking to this page, or by emailing the attachment below.  
Bob Wenzlau,
Nov 1, 2011, 9:40 PM