Dumped On

Houston was supposed to be cracking down on polluters. So why has it spent five years cleaning up on little guys like Walter Bazarsky?

Late last year, Pam Bazarsky woke up in a different house with her husband of 37 years.

Walter had suffered a major stroke 11 days earlier. The family moved the partially paralyzed 60-year-old man from Methodist Hospital to his daughter's one-story house. Unlike the couple's Fountain View town house, it could handle his wheelchair.

On this October morning, Pam got up early to prepare his breakfast, feed him and administer various medications. A phone call interrupted her. It was the office manager of the salvage yard that Walter and the family had run for almost four decades. The stroke had muted Walter's voice, but she tried to reassure him about the call.

Bazarsky got hit  with felony charges, while authorities did nothing about mounds of debris dumped near his business.
Deron Neblett
Bazarsky got hit with felony charges, while authorities did nothing about mounds of debris dumped near his business.
Workers Isaro Mendoza (left) and Mario Chavez sort metal waste at B&B.
Deron Neblett
Workers Isaro Mendoza (left) and Mario Chavez sort metal waste at B&B.

"Oh, it's nothing," Pam said. "One of the trucks broke down. I'll go and check on it."

Guilt continues to cut through Pam's words about that morning, because she hated having to hide anything from her husband. She explains -- half apologizes -- that there was no way of knowing what the truth might have done to Walter in his fragile state.

Pam kissed him good-bye and rushed to B&B Iron and Metal Company on the outskirts of downtown's northeast side. She looked briefly at the line of police squad cars outside, tried to lock in her composure and got out of the car.

When she told a cop she worked there, a policewoman ushered her through the tiny office and into a cramped bathroom. The 56-year-old grandmother complied with the search commands: Open the blouse. Lift the bra. Pull down the underwear.

Meanwhile, on adjacent Conti Street, a big top had blossomed over a temporary command center of tables and chairs. "It looked like a party tent," Pam recalls. "They seemed to be enjoying themselves." Police, some initially armed with shotguns, poked through salvage bins and began stripping the office of meticulously amassed records dating back years.

Pam showed her anger even as she hid a deeper rage. Five years earlier, this raid -- technically it was the execution of a search warrant -- would have shocked the Bazarskys. By now, only the timing was a surprise.

Since 1996, the small business had been hit in an on-again, off-again siege by a new city offensive against pollution and illegal dumping. There was plenty to be found here, right on the company's doorstep. Nearby lanes in this deteriorated section of the Fifth Ward sprouted with mounds of debris. But these law enforcement agents, like the city workers before them, ignored it.

Instead, police and prosecutors had battered B&B and Walter Bazarsky in disputes over perhaps a bathtub-full of oily residue. In earlier times, that would have been the stuff of municipal citations or minor misdemeanors.

Now those allegations ranged upward into felonies. They carried fines of up to six figures and years in prison. The Bazarskys fought them, and they had ultimately won.

But to this raiding party, those victories for B&B didn't seem to mean anything. Or they may have meant everything.

The Bazarskys and their business make for unlikely figures on anybody's most wanted list. They prefer it that way. Their lives are remarkable only because they are so unremarkable.

Walter Bazarsky was a year or so out of the University of Texas in 1963. The young salvage yard rep went on a weekend ride with his father, who serviced candy and gum machines. Bazarsky checked in on a client, who needed his scrap picked up immediately.

He and his father rented a truck, hauled the junk away, turned a profit and never looked back.

A week after founding their own salvage business, Bazarsky discovered his only other love in life -- a woman named Pam Levine -- on a blind date. They married exactly a year later.

Business and marriage both blossomed. Bazarsky went from renting trucks to building up a small fleet. A simple man, he preferred a simple philosophy. He doesn't deal with drive-up trade or salvage from off the street. Hazardous materials and liquid wastes are taboo, he says.

His customers include established foundries, fabricating shops and industries -- even the Anheuser-Busch brewery -- which discard metal waste and junked parts. B&B is the middleman, dropping off bins, returning the full containers to the "bone yard" of the business where various metals are sorted for the trip to smelters. Their profits, sometimes their losses, come from the difference between what they pay their clients and what they get from the smelters.

The Bazarskys set up their yard in a plot of leased land on Jensen Drive, near what is now the nook of Interstate 10 and the Eastex Freeway. The once-thriving mix of small frame homes and big industry edged downward with the flight to the suburbs. Today it is little more than vacant lots and mostly abandoned houses, some no more than charred hulls.

In the late '60s, Bazarsky moved the yard down the street to land he purchased at 1115 Jensen, the site of a junk yard in the '30s and then the defunct Lincoln drive-in cafe.

His salvage yard is a textbook mom-and-pop business. What the salvage giants save in economy of scale, Bazarsky makes up for in first-class service and extensive experience. "There's no part of the salvage business that I haven't been personally involved in over the years," he says matter-of-factly. "I've done it all."

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