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Protestors Take Aim at Palermo's Alleged Unsafe Working Conditions

Protestors worked up about Palermo's Pizza OSHA violations crash park opening celebration in Milwaukee's Menomonee Valley.

A recent celebration for a project considered a huge WIN for the environment – transforming a 24-acre former rail yard in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley – was slightly dampened by protestors. Their target was Palermo's Pizza - one of the first companies to bring into operation into the valley.

As Three Bridges Park officially opened its “bridges”, protestors showed up to broadcast that a “tenant” just below the park has been cited for Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations.

That morning, people cued up at the park’s eastern-most bridge – the one that links the Mitchell Park Domes to a series of trails – one for biking, another for pedestrians, and then the vast man-made terrain that’s destined to become an outdoor classroom along the Menomonee River.

A human and bicycle parade formed; it was strategically designed to meet up with people launching from bridges two and three. A few individuals quietly worked the crowd passing out flyers.

In 2006 Palermo's became the first Milwaukee manufacturer to move into the Menomonee Valley Industrial Center.

“Palermo’s Pizza factory is right next door. There’s 30,000 pounds of ammonia. The cited them for safety hazards. They’re fighting that. It’s exactly what caused the big disaster in West Texas.”

The protestors words faded as we were swept into the crowd along the sun-drenched landscape.

The ceremony opened with Menomonee River Partner’s executive director Laura Bray’s welcome. It along with a bundle of public and private partners pulled off this project along with enticing businesses to repopulate the blighted valley below.

A blast, then a voice echoed through park.

“This is an important public safety announcement.”

The amplified voice of Brian Rothgery bounced among the “native plant seeded” hills.

“30,000 pounds of ammonia that’s on site.”

The union organizer has been more than a little involved in the safety and strike issues that have been embroiled the pizza operation for months. In a flash, Rothgery was spirited away, and the ceremony continued.

A parade of partners and dignitaries took their turn at the official microphone. When he stepped up, Forest County Potawatomi Chairman Harold “Gus” Frank acknowledged American’s citizens to share views, including Rothgery.

“He had his concerns heard by hundreds of people. And for years and years I believe the citizens for the city of Milwaukee tried to have their voices heard that we need to do something in that valley to clean it up.”

The ribbon cutting achieved, the crowd slowly dispersed – some to check out kayak’s moored on the river, others to grab free ice cream or have their face painted.

Erika Wolf pressed a press packet into my hand. The volunteer motored in from Madison and says she ’s one of the thirty protestors on the scene. She deems OSHA’s call on Palermo’s urgent.

Wolf says, “What’s going on is that there’s been discovered a huge discrepancy on reporting. They have 30,000 pounds of ammonia on site here They’ve been sited for serious safety procedure training violations. And on the city’s record, they have the worst case scenario that only 1,300 pounds could leak and or explode and cause a problem, but we know that there’s 30,000 pounds on site because they reported that to the EPA. So what we’re wondering is that discrepancy there, because although they’re both catastrophic situations, the difference is huge; 1,300 pounds within one minute would affect affect a 1.2 mile radius from right where we’re standing, you can see the building. And if 30,000 pounds were to explode or leak that would affect a six mile radius within a minute, and that would be all the way to the lake and in every direction. So we’re saying, this is a public safety risk for the entire city of Milwaukee."

Palermo's spokesperson Evan Zeppos dismisses Wolf’s assessment as outrageous claims and scare tactics.

Zeppos says the anhydrous ammonia – 29,500 pounds of it - used at the pizza factory is a component of the company’s sophisticated “closed loop” refrigeration system. He adds, it is seven years old and they’ve never had a problem.

“It’s monitored 24 hours a day. We have an emergency response plan in place that protects the employees and the community. And if there were any sense of true seriousness of these concerns as people who are trying to hurt the company try to make it, you know there would be a lot more attention from the regulatory authorities.”

Zeppo says since OSHA notified the company May 17, Palermo’s has been providing the agency with information. He describes OSHA’s concerns as “administrative” not “operational.”

“It wasn’t that OSHA said there’s a problem with emissions or anything like that. They wanted further documentation on our training programs, on our training programs; not that it was bad, not that there was something wrong, not that there was a leak, not that there was anything else. We take it seriously though, I don’t want to minimize it.

Representatives from OSHA were not able to grant an interview on the active case, but stated Palermo’s Pizza is contesting the violations, that could be resolved through an agreement; however, it opens the door to a possible formal hearing process.

Whenever more than 10,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia are stored or used on a site; additional OSHA safety standards are administered. The agency wants to make sure workers know how to protect themselves and how to recognize a leak in the system.

According to OSHA’s website, refrigerant grade anhydrous ammonia is classified as nonflammable, “however, ammonia vapor in high concentrations will burn. It is unlikely that such concentrations will occur except in confined spaces or in the proximity of large spills.”

In its citation notification to Palermo’s, OSHA called for violation abatement by August 16th.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.<br/>