Posts Tagged ‘palo alto

25
Jul
09

almost full

the hills are alive with the sound of compactors

the hills are alive with the sound of compactors

The Palo Alto landfill is almost full. The old dirt road leading to the active face is now being filled.There’s a new entrance and a new tollbooth, but it is manned by the same old walrus who checks your ID and takes your $10 for a trunkful or $20 for a truckload.

For a special burial, the sign at the entrance says, there is an additional fee. The gatekeeper explains that this is not a ceremony for your beloved pooch or your dearly departed hamster. It’s for such things as asbestos, which have to be double-wrapped.  Seems like a good plan.

In the 14 years that I’ve observed progress here, the mountains have grown faster than kudzu vine. In a year or so, they should finally be done. You can begin to see what the final shape of the hills is going to be—not exactly like Coyote Hills across the bay, but more similar than the breaching whale shapes that most landfills achieve.

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15
Aug
08

Rolling Hills

Byxbee Park, on the bay shore in Palo Alto, is both perfectly obvious and perfectly bizarre. Obvious, because it’s in the middle of the Baylands and offers spectacular views of the bay in all directions. Perfectly bizarre, because it is full of machinery and mysterious artifacts that have an allure similar to Stonehenge. Clearly these things were built by humans, and at some effort, but to what earthly purpose?

Pole Field at Byxbee Park, Palo Alto
Pole Field at Byxbee Park, Palo Alto

The artifacts include a carefully planted forest of wooden poles, as well as a piece of equipment that looks like a cross between a rugby goal and wind chimes. K-rail is laid out in chevrons on one hillside. In a dip on the other side, stands a chugging, churning device that looks to have sagged out of plumb a generation ago. A trail of shimmery heat waves comes out the top.

Most startlingly, the place breathes, though not always in the same rhythm. A few years ago, you had to listen carefully for the long-drawn-out, despondent sigh it cast upon the air every two minutes or so. When I visited more recently, the park breathed almost in synch with myself, a little stertorously perhaps, as if suffering from some minor pulmonary obstruction.

There’s a simple explanation for the mystery: Byxbee Park is repurposed landfill, a small section of the Palo Alto city dump that was decommissioned some time in the 1980s. Its artificial hills are studded with pipes and pumps for the capture of leachate and methane. The leachate goes to the purification plant down the road, while the methane is burned off by a flare, that rusty device described above. Construction rubble peeks out of the grassy knolls behind the “habitat reconstruction” signs. The pole forest is in fact “land art,” and so are the K-rail and the rugby chimes.

If you don’t already know, then it’s not so easy to find out what Byxbee Park is. A plaque near the entrance to the park says: “The design of Byxbee Park is the result of a collaboration between the City of Palo Alto, landscape architects Hargreaves Associates, and artists Michael Oppenheimer and Peter Richards. The project was funded in part by the City of Palo Alto refuse collection fees and the Public Art Commission’s Art in Public Places program.” A map identifies the installations by name but declines all effort at explanation. And not a word about garbage apart from those collection fees.

Byxbee’s tight-lipped stance, the likely legacy of the 20th-century’s long romance with “sanitation,” is perhaps understandable. Sanitation was about garbage removal as a public health measure, about whisking garbage away from the curb and making it disappear, as quickly and efficiently as possible. It was about burying garbage where nobody had to worry about it except the sanitation department. It was about creating a world where you could pretend that garbage didn’t really amount to any of your business. That time has passed.

Michael Oppenheimer's Wind Wave installation

Wind Wave installation

The sanitation romance is fading and reality asserts itself. What may once have counted as innocence now only looks like wanton blindness. Most of us are uncomfortably aware of the fact that natural resources are finite and landfill space harder and harder to come by. Sanitary engineering has given way to environmental engineering, and ordinary people are handling (and worrying about) their trash, at least a little. When we drag our garbage cans to the curb and the lid won’t quite go down, we probably don’t feel too good about it.

All the same, it’s still awkward to talk about garbage publicly. The instinct still is to pull away from the subject as if it were sex and we Victorians. Garbage isn’t quite taboo, but it isn’t approved cocktail party conversation either—or something easily owned up to in park signage. It’s not just Byxbee Park where the “habitat restoration” signs don’t specify what type of habitat it is exactly that’s being restored. Bayfront Park, in Menlo Park, doesn’t have a single sign telling you it’s the old town dump. The Sunnyvale dump has signs all over it that say “Sensitive Wildlife Area.” Indeed.

Garbage dumps are just more comfortable telling you how to comport yourself than pointing out what it is you’ve already accomplished.

But perhaps it’s time to learn to think about garbage and to discuss it, not just in the “trashies” subculture but in polite society—if only because we actually feel a little guilty about the amounts of trash we get rid of every week. Or perhaps because we suspect that, whatever happens to it precisely, it’s not a pretty story. Perhaps because looking at our garbage makes it possible to decide whether we want to continue to make more fake hills and fill up more canyons with dangerous stuff that needs to be tended and monitored for decades or longer. If we dig our garbage back up out of the twilit reaches of a guilty conscience, then perhaps the signage at our landfills can be a little more straightforward too?

Totting up donations on the Palo Alto dump

Totting up donations on the Palo Alto dump

At Byxbee right now, the best hint of what’s underfoot is the active fill next door. Its mounds rise at a startling rate, even though only a portion of Palo Alto’s garbage ends up here now. Every time I visit Byxbee, the new dump is a little more present. One day, a new hill rises in the back. Another time, fill activity is going on in front, where there used to be a miscellany of trucks, rubble, equipment, and temporary storage. A third time, a little setup of pumps and other machinery has been moved out of the hollow in which it sat, and the hollow itself is now a big hill. It’s all carefully shaped to a grading plan that is meant to make the garbage look like the Coyote Hills across the bay–a natural feature of the environment.

With only a few years of space left in it, the active dump is expected to reach capacity in 2010, and the entire area will become parkland. As garbage hills go, Byxbee won’t be very large. Nevertheless, if it’s your garbage in there, how is it not special?

Even when you know what it is made of, Byxbee is quite lovely. Or maybe it is actually more lovely. In summer, when the grass is a bright strawberry blond and the sky intensely blue, the garbage is more a distant memory than a looming presence. Christmastime is different. The park has a leaden quality, even on the brighter days. The dull green of the grass and the relatively low light lend the hills an ominous air far more suggestive of the putrid mess underfoot.

In winter, the geese come through on their way south. Large groups, sometimes hundreds of them, camp out for a day or so to rest. The younger members of the flock occupy their time with incessant honking, squawking, and squabbling to rearrange the social order, while the more sedate and peaceable members of the congregation contentedly snack on the new grass.

The pelicans like to doze near Adobe Creek, neatly folded into small, blazing white packages from which occasionally a gawky long neck and beak protrudes. They could be a demonstration of the amazing ingenuity of a high-tech camping gadget. An occasional loner on the wing, flying low over the water, demonstrates the size and power of the animal when fully folded out.

At sunrise the wading birds and other water fowl are out at first light, always already there by the time I arrive. Most of the smaller ones I don’t recognize, although I am familiar with the names: terns, grebes, willets, western sandpipers, curlews, greater and lesser yellowlegs. They roll on the tongue like burbling water, out of time and history, comforting like the birds themselves.

They offer us a little hope: no matter how artificial the environment, no matter how degraded, life goes on. For now at least.

06
Aug
08

On Fire

In late July, a huge compost pile caught fire at the Palo Alto dump. Gigantic billows of smoke drifted off to the neighboring communities, creating considerable alarm among the residents, most of whom (understandably) don’t like to be intimate with landfill and its various effluents. Fire engines and helicopters were dispatched to extinguish the smoldering ruin, after which a crew sifted through the entire pile in search of hot spots.

Compost Pile in 2006

Compost Pile in 2006

Barbara Cimino, a spokeswoman for the fire department, sought to calm the fears of residents in the path of the smoke, explaining it was all very harmless and quickly brought under control. The Huffington post fueled the flames by adding “toxic” to its headline, although that’s unlikely, considering it was the compost pile that was laid waste, so to speak. It won’t have been more unhealthy than smoke is, generally, I should think and to be avoided, but “toxic smoke” suggests something else to me.

Cimino noted that the fire department was investigating whether a truck had brought in combustible material. That’s what caught my ear, as definitely newspeak. Compost is by definition combustible. Moreover, the process of biodegradation generates heat and smoldering fires in landfills are common, as they used to be in haystacks, where moist hay can spur biodegradation and result in spontaneous combustion). Compost can’t be any different. So however it happened, in all likelihood, it was just in the nature of things.

A couple of years ago, I got a tour of the Palo Alto landfill from the manager, who showed me the active face, the recycling operations on top of the fill, the vast closed area which holds nothing but pipes and grass on top of the fill, and the area converted to park. He drove me around and explained what was what and how things worked, grudgingly at first and much more enthusiastically when he discovered I was nothing but ears.

He’d worked at the landfill since the early 1980s and told me stories about people stealthily trying to dump motor oil when the workers weren’t looking. About a lady bringing huge loads of new cabbage patch dolls just before Christmas, which the workers rescued and gave to a not-for-profit. About another lady dragging a worker under her car as he was helping her get unstuck from a muddy spot. About yachtsmen abandoning their craft as the marina silted up. leaving the landfill crew to deal with the remains.

Sunrise over the Palo Alto Dump

Sunrise over the Palo Alto Dump

And he explained that the landfill was smoldering under the surface pretty much all the time. Usually, the workers coould tell where the hot spots were when their PVC methane collection pipes melted. There wasn’t much they could do about it except lay more pipe for methane collection.

He told me he didn’t know what he would do when the landfill closed, not too far in the future now. He didn’t have much education, being an outdoors kind of guy, but operating the heavy machinery on the landfill all those years had caused a lot of damage to his body. It left him quite a few years away from retirement but not very many options.

It was an education, as I gradually realized that landfill workers get squeezed between government organizations that demand less trash, residents who want to dump whatever they want to get rid off, regardless of regulations, and the trash itself, which is wayward, nasty, and toxic.

Many people like the park that has been created out of the part of the landfill that was closed years ago, but the landfill manager, my tourguide, would just as soon hang himself as walk around there. “It’s filthy,” he said. “and there are nasty creatures all over it–black widows, rats, and all sorts of other vermin.” We’ll have to give it to him. he knew what he was talking about.




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