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.

Objections

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.”