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?

Bazarsky, who oversees about 20 workers, comes in six days a week and doesn't go out for lunch. "I'm in the service business," he explains. "I feel like if somebody calls me, they want to talk to me now -- not three hours later or when I'm back from lunch."

He hasn't had a real vacation in years. But he hasn't let the business orphan his family -- Pam fills in as bookkeeper, and the kids, now the grandkids, have worked and played there. He managed to send his daughter and son through college, with son Bobby now a B&B assistant.

"We lead a very boring life," Pam says. "I'm not complaining -- I think it is to our credit."

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.
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.

Visitors see twisted piles of pipe, clutter and barrels of pig-tailed metal shavings, but Walter Bazarsky looks at them as objects of beauty. "This is my life. It has been my life as long as I can remember," he says. "I don't know what else to say. I love this place."

Over the decades, he'd gotten a request from a nearby church (which had also dumped some of the debris adjacent to his lot during a construction project years earlier) to improve the appearance of his business's exterior. He'd mowed his weeds, cleaned up and routinely received his yearly salvage operator license from the city. On these ramshackle few acres, Bazarsky thought he had created his own stable little world.

Nobody needed much documentation when Houston finally got around to a fresh fight against illegal dumping and pollution in the early '90s. While many area residents still resist sweeping federal edicts to clean up the air, the old notions of anything-goes with garbage and wastes have been melting away.

Officials don't talk about such debacles as the city's own Milby Bus Barn site, a large polluted plot of unusable land not far from B&B. But they have plenty of statistics to evidence the impact of dumping. They estimate that enough illegal trash -- 94 million pounds of it -- is hauled away annually to cover nearly 100 football fields three feet deep in refuse. That works out to about 55 pounds for each resident. And the costs to remove it add up to about $5 million yearly.

In response, City Council took action nine years ago to create the Neighborhood Protection Division of the Public Works and Engineering Department, as well as various offshoots. Along with pollution and dumping, it handles nuisances such as rat and fly infestations and overgrown lots. The division concentrates on what had been the targets of many of the abuses: the inner-city, lower-income neighborhoods least able to protect themselves.

The division has expanded into a bureaucracy of its own, with a budget of about $1.5 million fueled by grants. From part-time police help, it now has six full-time police officers from HPD's major offenders unit, along with six inspectors from public works and various coordinated teams from other agencies.

They emphasize public education about the environment. Those not inclined to report illegal dumping or pollution out of civic duty can do it for hard cash -- up to $200 per tip, in the ROAR, or Rat On a Rat, program. It has paid out about $28,200 and has drawn roughly 100,000 complaints. ROAR has expanded to take in the police and public works investigators.

In response to the rising enforcement, the district attorney's office added staffing to handle the increasing caseload. Roger Haseman was the lone pollution prosecutor when he took over in 1991. Grants have expanded his office into one with three assistant district attorneys, an intern and a secretary. While the outside funding has expired, the unit has been a money mill -- a grant application last year reported that the D.A. took in $2.25 million in fines and related fees. Even more penalties go to city remediation funds. The division also got verdicts of more than 200 years in jail or prison, and handled 600 prosecutions in 2001.

"I kind of got in at the ground floor," Haseman says of the expansion. New state laws vastly increased penalties and eased prosecutions, and juries seemed to join in the fervor.

"For whatever reason, the people of Harris County hate polluters," he says. Haseman explains that probation is the preference for some juries in violent crime cases, but "if you try one of these environment cases, generally somebody is probably going to jail. That was kind of a surprise to me."

Like drug agents tallying top busts at border crossings, the environmental cops and prosecutors have their own tonnage to tout, converting it to pounds for even more impact. Several big cases involved truckloads of rubbish, thousands of chemical barrels, 10,000 discarded tires and three million pounds of crushed asbestos floor tiles.

However, this new offensive began to go beyond brazen dumpers and flagrant polluters. The expanding effort started targeting ordinary businesspeople or just residents unaware of the zeal of this enforcement effort (see "Getting Wasted").

On October 7, 1996, community services inspector Arthur Hypolite went on a 2.5-mile "sweep" looking for various nuisance violations. He scored at Conti and Jensen, just outside the few acres that Walter Bazarsky had built into an iron Eden.

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