ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The specter of Allentown's quaint Midway Manor neighborhood becoming a 21st –century version of Love Canal was raised during testimony before the city's zoning hearing board Monday night.
Fear of chemicals -- and of tractor-trailer traffic through the neighborhood -- spurred 48 people to raise their hands in opposition to plans by National Container to operate at 1344-1328 N. Sherman St. on the East Side.
Residents want the zoning board to deny the request.
Comparing National Container's proposed operation to the massive and infamous toxic waste site in upstate New York may have been an intentional, and frightening, exaggeration by one concerned resident.
But not clearly addressed during the hearing were the nature and quantity of residual chemicals inside large industrial containers that would be cleaned inside the building.
The company cleans containers, by power washing them with water, and reconditions them. The company also cuts up unusable containers, then ships them to another location for recycling.
Many of the residents' concerns stem from the fact that an unspecified amount of unidentified residual material will remain in the containers when they arrive at the proposed plant for cleaning.
Some fear hazardous materials from damaged containers leaking into the streets.
Atty. Carl Weiner, who represented National Container, assured the zoning board that the operation will comply with all local, state and federal laws – including environmental laws.
Weiner dismissed residents' concerns about hazardous chemicals as speculation, not definitive evidence.
"Any waste that we have is non-hazardous and sent to off-site facilities," said Fred Slemmer of National Container, who apparently will manage the Allentown plant.
Slemmer said the state Department of Environmental Protection does annual inspections of its operation, now based in Quakertown, and added it never has been cited by DEP.
The three-member zoning hearing board took testimony on the case but will not make a decision until its June 30 meeting.
No more testimony will be taken on that date, said Daniel McCarthy, chairman of the board. He said the board will only deliberate and vote on the case.
National Container plans to purchase the 38,000-square-foot industrial building, plus a 3,300-square-foot office, on just over five acres on the northwest side of the residential Midway Manor neighborhood.
Weiner said it will not be a recycling processing center, although that is how it was identified in bold-faced letters on the zoning board's agenda.
"That is a far more intensive use than what my client is proposing," he said. "There is no gathering of waste materials as you would have with a recycling processing center."
The company hopes to get zoning board approval for a special exception to continue a non-conforming industrial use, in an area where industrial uses no longer are permitted.
Until November, the now-vacant plant was used for manufacturing by a company called Custom Non-Woven, Inc., which made compressed fibers for cushions and mattresses.
National Container promises fewer employees, and about the same amount of truck traffic, as when Custom Non-Woven was on the site.
It plans to move its operation to Allentown from Quakertown, where it has been since 2003.
Weiner told the zoners that special exceptions generally are permitted as long as the new use is no more injurious, harmful or objectionable to the surrounding neighborhood than was the prior use.
The first of nine objectors to testify was Richard Wilburn, president of the Midway Manor Community Association, which represents 528 homes in that neighborhood.
"The community fought long and hard, and with great expense, to get the zoning for this area changed from business light industrial to highway business district," said Wilburn. "We do not want to see any reversion back to the previous zoning classification."
Wilburn said if the zoning board approves the exception it will reduce the quality of life for everyone living in that neighborhood.
Resident Tom Schweyer presented the zoning board with a petition signed by 164 Midway Manor residents who oppose National Container's plan.
McCarthy accepted the petition, but explained it does not become part of the formal record of the proceeding because those who signed the petition "are not here to give testimony."
"We respectfully request that you help us protect our neighborhood, our children and our grandchildren by denying this exception," said Schweyer. "Our well-being is in your hands. Please keep us safe."
"I request and urge you please -- keep our zoning the way it is," echoed Rev. Manuel Hernandez, an Assemblies of God clergyman who said his Midway Manor home faces the property.
Special exception requests should not get rubber stamp approval, testified Richard Schilling, a Midway Manor resident who described himself as a zoning officer in Bucks County.
Another Love Canal?
Resident Joseph Svetecz, who identified himself as a certified biologist who teaches biology and environmental science at Lehigh Career & Technical Institute, demanded that, before making a decision, the zoning board "in accordance with federal law" first obtain and release full disclosure of any and all chemicals that are going to be on the site.
"A community has the right to oppose a new development in their neighborhood because it is too close to residents and potentially causing a threat," said Svetecz.
He said containers brought to the site would contain "residues of unknown origin."
"A container company moving into our neighborhood could cause environmental damage and threaten our well-being if they get sloppy with handling these residues of unknown origin," maintained Svetecz, who brought up Love Canal.
"There could be a mass contamination of our area.
"Such products and residues could run off into our neighborhoods and/or leach into our water table."
Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., made international headlines in the late 1970s because it was built over a toxic waste dump that contained more than 21,000 tons of chemical wastes.
Eventually, 800 families were relocated. That environmental disaster spurred the creation of the federal Superfund hazardous waste clean-up program.
Svetecz said homeowners in Love Canal did not have full disclosure of the types of chemicals that were beneath their homes.
During the thaw after a harsh winter, he said, those chemicals created a toxic stew that leached out of the ground into backyards and basements, causing cancer, miscarriages, birth defects and developmental problems for children.
"Would you place this business in your neighborhood?" Svetecz asked the zoning board.
"How would you feel if an environmental problem were to arise in the neighborhood and innocent people were to fall ill?"
Daycare next door
Several residents noted a daycare is next to the proposed plant.
East Allentown resident Evette D'Amore, who takes her four-year-old twins to that daycare, wanted assurances that all the children who go to there are going to be safe from fumes or liquid wastes.
"If you can swear up and down that they're going to be safe, I'll believe you," she said.
"But if you can't make that promise 100 percent, I would worry and I'll have to rethink. I'd hate for the daycare to lose more children because the parents feel like I do."
According to testimony, National Container will have six fewer employees and about the same number of tractor-trailers coming and going as when Custom Non-Woven was operating on the site.
Slemmer said about 10 tractor-trailers a day will come and go at the plant, which will have 20 employees on two shifts, between 6:30 a.m. and 11 p.m., plus a Saturday morning shift.
He said most trucks traffic will be in the mornings, with almost none after 3 p.m.
But Wilburn said in a previous meeting with National Container, his organization was told the number of trucks could vary from eight to 15 a day.
He said residents also were told some truck drivers may sleep in their cabs overnight at the proposed plant. He said engine noise and diesel fumes are annoying and a health issue.
Wilburn also said Sherman Street is narrow and trucks cause traffic tie-ups when they attempt to enter or exit it.
He said tractor-trailers go over curbs and onto sidewalks and even have knocked down utility poles at the intersection of N. Sherman and Union Boulevard.
He said it's an intersection where children cross the street on their way to Ritter Elementary School and older children wait for buses to get to their schools.
Schweyer, whose home faces Sherman Street, told zoners: "Our homes literally shake when these trucks go up and down the street."
Hernandez said his vehicle was struck by tractor-trailers going into the plant when it was operated by Custom Non-Woven.
Several objectors said the operation should relocate into an industrial park that has roads built to accommodate tractor-trailers and no homes nearby.
The plant has a potential alternate access from Quebec Street on its west side, but that will require a lease with Norfolk Southern to cross its former railroad tracks.
"We have more than 50 years of experience in container reconditioning," said Slemmer, who is facility manager for National Container in Quakertown.
He explained his company reconditions 275-gallon and 330-gallon containers for resale.
The containers were described as tubular "blow-molded bottles" – made of plastic -- inside steel cages.
Slemmer said businesses use the containers instead of drums, explaining the 330-gallon container takes the place of six drums.
"Anything liquid can be put in these containers," he said, adding many handled by his company contain adhesives, paints "and that sort of thing."
He said some of their larger customers are Sherwin-Williams, Henkel Adhesives and Lubrizol Corp.
Slemmer said arriving containers have been "emptied to a certain level."
Wilburn said residents cannot get clear answers about the residue that still will be in containers coming to the plant.
"They know what they do," testified Schilling. "They only have a handful of customers. They know the particular chemicals they have. They should have been more forthcoming."
"We clean those containers with water," said Slemmer. "We do not use chemicals in the operation." He said that water will go into the city's sanitary sewer system.
About 40 percent of the containers are not reused.
Slemmer said that includes the inner bottles of containers, including those containing road paint. They are cut up and shipped to a recycler, who salvages the plastic. He said damaged cages are sent to scrap dealers.
Slemmer said some of the containers temporarily will be stored beneath overhangs outside the building in winter months, if they arrive covered in snow. He said they will remain outside only until that snow can be cleaned off.
The plant manager said noise will be contained within the building unless doors are open, Then "you probably would hear something that sounds like a power washer. But it would not be heard indoors in another home."
The manager also said no smoke, odors or vibrations will emanate from the operation.
Convenience store denied
Also Monday, the zoning board unanimously rejected a request by Juan Diaz to open a convenience store on the first floor of 827 N. 6th St., because such a use is not permitted in that residential neighborhood and the property lacks sufficient parking.
Diaz anticipated getting as many as 200 customers a day at the store on the corner of 6th and Cedar streets, but said most would come from the immediate neighborhood.
Reynaldo Ortiz, who owns two nearby properties along N. 6th Street, objected to the plan because it's already very hard to find parking in that neighborhood. But Ortiz stressed Diaz "runs a real good business" in his existing store along 2nd Street in the city.
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