Bankrupt firm to help ‘pay’ for Gowanus clean-up

A chemical company with two dirty Red Hook plants agreed this week to help foot the bill for the $1-billion Superfund cleanup of the Gowanus Canal — oh, but there’s one catch: the company is bankrupt.

Chemtura Corporation, a Connecticut-based specialty chemicals maker, agreed on Thursday to pay $3.9 million toward cleansing the fetid waterway, the Department of Justice announced.

No timetable was given for when Chemtura would pay, but the feds cheered the agreement — and said that they expect the sum to be “fully paid in cash.”

“EPA is pleased that a company potentially responsible in part for the contamination will contribute to the clean-up,” agency spokesman John Senn said.

Chemtura attorney Michael Rettig said that the feds would get their hands on the money 30 days after the company emerges from bankruptcy. But officials could not specify a time when precisely that would happen.

“We expect that to be forthcoming in the short term,” said company spokesman John Gustavsen. “We’re on the downhill [toward emerging from bankruptcy]. This has been a long time coming.”

He predicted the company would emerge stronger from its “reorganization,” and would settle its hefty bill as specified by the court. “We are running our business successfully and operating successfully,” he said.

Along with Chemtura, the agency has so far reached agreements with far-more-solvent polluters like the city of New York and energy giant National Grid. For now, the agency is not working on any other settlements for the canal, Senn said.

From 1950 to 2000, Chemtura operated two manufacturing facilities at the dirty end of Court Street in Red Hook. According to court papers, hazardous substances “have and/or are continuing to migrate” from the sites.

Indeed, besides sullying the canal, Chemtura has also been fingered for polluting Red Hook Park. Earlier this summer, state environmental inspectors discovered “unacceptable” levels of cancer-causing PCBs and other toxins near the park — and sued Chemtura claiming that the firm had released the chemicals from the Court Street plants.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a class of organic compounds once widely used in a host of industrial applications, particularly favored by the electrical industry as coolants and insulating fluids for transformers and capacitors, but used in an array of products, from paints to adhesives.

In 2002, Chemtura had begun sealing leaks from cracked and deteriorating tanks at its now-shuttered manufacturing plant, but the company halted such work after finding PCBs in 2007, saying it needed further investigation.

The clean-up resumed, and continued until 2009, when the company filed for bankruptcy.

The company, a global producer of plastics, specialty chemicals and crop protection chemicals, filed for bankruptcy in March, 2009, citing reduced demand. Last year, it had roughly $2.5 billion in sales, a decline of about $1 billion from the previous year.

Cleaning the canal, named a Superfund site last March, is expected to span a decade. Federally overseen clean-ups can take years because alleged polluters and their successor companies often dispute the charges levied against them by the EPA — just as Chemtura did.

In a separate agreement with the feds announced in August, the company agreed to pay $26 million to clean up 17 contaminated sites in 14 states.