Coia survivor in shrinking industry

WASTE NOT: Bob Coia, owner of Coia Sanitation in Cumberland, once competed with several businesses in northern Rhode Island that did the same work. Today, there is only one other competitor in Cumberland. / PBN PHOTO/DAVID LEVESQUE
WASTE NOT: Bob Coia, owner of Coia Sanitation in Cumberland, once competed with several businesses in northern Rhode Island that did the same work. Today, there is only one other competitor in Cumberland. / PBN PHOTO/DAVID LEVESQUE

When Bobby Coia began his septic tank and cesspool-cleaning business back in 1978, there were approximately eight businesses in northern Rhode Island that did the same kind of work, including at least five in Cumberland alone. Sewers back then were scarce, especially in residential areas.
“There was a need for it [his business] back then in our town and in Lincoln,” the owner of Coia Sanitation LLC said. Lincoln, he noted, did not install sewers throughout most of the town until the late 1980s. “Most homes had septic tanks and cesspools, especially the older houses and especially in places like Valley Falls,” he said.
What’s the difference between a cesspool and septic tank?
A cesspool is a basic hole in the ground to which a home’s sewage is diverted; a septic tank or septic system adds a leach field for extra environmental protection but, like a cesspool, must be cleaned out on a regular basis, usually at least once a year for the average single-family home.
Back then, Coia served mostly Cumberland and Lincoln, seldom venturing beyond their borders except to dispose of waste at the 20-acre Western Sand & Gravel in Burrillville, which had special pits for the sewage. Coia back then cleaned out the septic systems at local restaurants, along with his usual work at homes, schools and other commercial establishments. His business – difficult as it may be to imagine nowadays – was essentially free of cumbersome government regulations and fees.
How times have changed. “It’s a whole different industry now,” Coia said.
Around 1980, he recalled, the Narragansett Bay Commission, which provides sewer service in the Cumberland area, opened a statewide waste-disposal facility in nearby Lincoln, on Route 116 where it remains today, so there was no longer a need for Coia’s trucks to travel to Burrillville for waste disposal. Besides, Western Sand & Gravel stopped accepting sewage waste at the same time, Coia said.
Meanwhile, other sanitation businesses like his in other parts of northern Rhode Island went out of business for various reasons, particularly as government regulations on the industry were increased and enhanced.
Today, there is but one other sanitation service based in Cumberland and Coia regularly makes routine service trips to Burrillville and other places he once considered far-flung, like Glocester, North Providence, Scituate and Johnston. Disposing sewage waste at restaurants, however, became “a little tricky” around the year 2000, he said, when the state passed laws prohibiting the dumping of restaurant grease in the sewage system or at sewage-disposal sites.
Coia had to stop taking sewage from area restaurants and supermarkets with in-store kitchens for prepared foods. That “took a big chunk out of my business,” he said. He used to dedicate one truck just for grease waste.
Now, when he goes to the NBC facility to dump, the amount and type of sewage waste he brings in are recorded on a manifest. Samples are taken for immediate testing “to make sure it is actual sewage” – not grease or hazardous materials, Coia said. Larger samples are also taken for a fuller analysis later at the Narragansett Bay Commission. “Nobody would dump hazardous waste,” Coia maintained, so the testing “is just to keep everybody honest.”
To make up for the lost restaurants and markets, Coia went to work building up his business in Rhode Island, acquiring customers in other towns outside the Blackstone Valley. “We made it up by doing more residential work,” he said.
And then, in 2008, along came what Coia called “a surprise,” a sewage-disposal fee that was part of former Gov. Donald L. Carcieri’s budget recommendation.
“It kind of caught us by surprise,” he said of himself and his industry colleagues. “We had no idea it was even being talked about.” The fee adds $10 for every 1,000 gallons pumped, the average size of a residential septic system, Coia said. The fee led Coia to raise his rates for the first time in many years in 2008, he said, so an average residential pump-out of 1,000 gallons typically costs the homeowner $200.
A second factor in raising his rates, Coia said, was the rising cost of fuel. He uses bio-diesel for his vehicles, including the shiny, new 2012 Peterbilt truck he purchased at the end of August for $140,000. He acknowledges that the bio-diesel is “a little bit more expensive” than regular diesel, but said the cost is worth it to help protect the environment. And that, after all, is what his business is all about. •

Coia Sanitation LLC
OWNER: Robert “Bobby” Coia
TYPE OF BUSINESS: Septic tank and cesspool-cleaning business
LOCATION: 137 Angell Road, Cumberland

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