Four (year) alarm: Sacramento sewage plant’s sonic aggravation ends after four years

County official says alarm didn’t indicate environmental threat, has now been deactivated

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the January 19, 2017, issue.

Using nonstop sound and sleep deprivation to torment prisoners is banned by the United Nations Convention Against Torture, but RegionalSan apparently missed that memo for years, as numerous nearby residents claim the sewage plant allowed an unbroken siren to wail at their homes in intervals—sometimes for up to five days at a time.

For the residents of McNamara Way in south Sacramento, the only thing more worrying than the constant noise was an obvious question: Why was a siren repeatedly sounding at the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant?

County officials said this week that there was never an environmental threat and that the elusive ghost alarm has now been permanently deactivated.

Located on Laguna Station Road, roughly a mile-and-a-half from McNamara Way, RegionalSan is a massive operation at the south edge of the city of Sacramento, near Elk Grove and east of the Sacramento River, pumping sewage from as far as Folsom.

Resident Jim Higgenbotham said issues with the plant’s siren began in 2012. That’s when Higgenbotham noticed an alarm bleating from the plant’s rear gate, straight into his bedroom window. “It would usually go off on a Friday night and keep sounding nonstop until sometime the following Monday or Tuesday,” Higgenbotham said. “Ever since then, incidents like that seem to happen four or five times a year. But lately it’s been happening four times a month. It’s really hard to fall asleep.”

Mimi Rogers, who also lives on McNamara Way, agreed the squawking disturbed neighborhood families. “It’s a siren that almost sounds like an ambulance rushing out,” Rogers observed. “It comes at odd times of the night, and I have a 1-year-old baby, and this really makes it difficult for me. It’s also been hard for my fiance to get rest when he gets off his night shift.”

Resident Dennis Christen said that, in addition to ruining his street’s tranquility, the siren prompted a more nagging question. “It’s a sewage plant,” Christen pointed out, “and alarms tend to go off because something is wrong.”

County spokeswoman Sharon Nichols Sargeant told SN&R that the alarm never indicated sewage problems that would affect residents. “It was just for the safety of our own employees,” Sargeant said. “It was a warning alarm that would let anyone working in our emergency storage basin to know that the gates were opening, and an overflow would be coming into the basin. Unfortunately, with all the recent storms, those gates were opening a lot lately.”

According to Sargeant, the problem only came to the county’s attention late last week, when the plant’s senior engineer met with a homeowners’ association. “The alarm has been completely disconnected now,” Sargeant said. “For the moment, we’ll be using a silent, blue flashing light—at least until we can figure out a better way.”

From the vantage point of Higgenbotham and Christen, the sonic drip torture they endured would not have sputtered on for years if security guards at the plant hadn’t blown them off. “We drove over [to] the plant once and tried to tell [a] guard at the gate what was happening, but he just said he had no idea what we were talking about,” Higgenbotham recalled. “He didn’t offer to put us in touch with management or anything. He basically just ignored us.”