WASHINGTON -- The nation must move rapidly to bolster protection of its chemical plants against a terrorist attack, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday, urging Congress to adopt regulations that the industry has already largely endorsed.
The remarks by Chertoff, in a speech before industry leaders, were the latest chapter in an unusual turnabout by the Bush administration. It is now lobbying for regulations that senior administration officials worked privately to block shortly after the 2001 attacks, saying then that voluntary measures would be sufficient.
Officials of the Homeland Security Department began indicating last year that they would support a move by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, to draft such regulations.
With a bill now pending before Congress, Chertoff laid out yesterday the provisions the administration was willing to endorse and those it would resist. His speech drew immediate praise from Collins and leaders of the industry, but criticism from environmentalists and some lawmakers, who said the regulations would not go nearly far enough.
All parties seem to agree that the nation's 15,000 chemical plants and other industrial facilities that use or store significant quantities of dangerous chemicals should be required to prepare security plans and then follow up with steps like fencing, cameras and identification cards to control access.
Federal legislation is necessary, Chertoff said this week, because of what he called "free riders," meaning smaller plants that have not honored voluntary security standards the chemical industry adopted after the 2001 attacks.
In his speech at a forum sponsored by George Washington University and the American Chemistry Council, a trade group, he said the regulations should be most stringent for plants that, because of the amount and danger of their chemical stockpiles or their proximity to urban areas, pose the greatest risks.
But he said the nation should have uniform standards, strongly implying that states should not be allowed to adopt their own rules, as New Jersey did late last year, particularly if those rules were more stringent.
He also said private-sector "third party" inspectors could check on compliance, similar to the way accountants certify corporate financial compliance for the government.
And while industrial plants that use dangerous chemicals should voluntarily consider switching to less dangerous alternatives, such moves should not be required, Chertoff said, in a nod to the burden on industry that those changes could entail.
Collins welcomed the secretary's support and said she, too, was eager to pass legislation.
"I am very pleased that this administration has recognized the importance of enacting chemical security legislation this year," she said in a statement.
Timothy J. Scott, chief security officer at Dow Chemical Co., speaking as one member of an industry panel after the event, said, "What we're doing at Dow falls very much in line with what the secretary was talking about."
But Andy Igrejas, a program director at the National Environmental Trust, which is frequently critical of the administration's environmental policies, said of the speech: "It was lame. It reflects pandering to the industry. And it means this could end up being more of a paperwork exercise instead of something that really protects people."