The Bush administration called Tuesday for federal regulation of security at chemical plants, but would largely let the industry decide how stiff the protections should be and leave inspections to private auditors.
Critics quickly labeled the proposal, as outlined by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, a toothless fix for safeguarding chemical plants from terrorist attacks.
Chertoff, speaking at a forum hosted by the chemical industry, called on Congress to give his department authority to approve or reject security plans for an estimated 15,000 facilities nationwide. But he said the government would not set minimum standards for chemical companies to follow, allowing the industry to tailor its own "so we can go about the objective of raising our security in a way that doesn't destroy the businesses we're trying to protect."
"There are a lot of ways to skin a cat, and we're going to let chemical operators figure out the right way, as long as the cat gets skinned," Chertoff said.
The Homeland Security Department would probably rely on private auditors to review and monitor chemical plant protections so "we don't necessarily deaden our efficiency by insisting that the government do everything itself," he said.
Chemical plants are believed to be a top target for al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations, and past investigations have revealed spotty results in how well the industry is prepared to respond to an attack. Nearly one-fifth of the nation's chemical facilities are located in areas where a toxic release could affect 50,000 or more people.
Chertoff said there are no specific or credible threats against the industry.
Currently, chemical companies voluntarily secure their facilities. But Congress for years has considered - though never approved - ways to regulate the industry akin to other potentially vulnerable targets like nuclear power facilities and commercial airports.
The House and Senate are examining legislation that would give Homeland Security authority to shut down chemical plants that repeatedly fail to create, update and submit security plans for their facilities.
The administration's proposal was greeted warmly by the American Chemistry Council, which represents about 130 major chemical companies, including seven firms based in other countries. Those companies have spent an average of $1.5 million per plant to bolster security, while some of their competitors have avoided those costs by refusing to update protective measures.
The proposal "will ensure the entire chemical sector - a critical part of our national infrastructure - is adequately protected," said council president Jack Gerard.
But critics said the proposal relies too much on the chemical industry to police itself.
"It's a lot like putting a 'Beware of dog' sign out in the yard but not actually buying a guard dog," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass. He said federal regulations should spell out minimum protections against different kinds of terror attacks, adding that the use of outside auditors was like "having the private sector grade the industry's homework."
Environmental groups also criticized the administration for not requiring the industry to substitute chemicals with safer substances that would be less dangerous to the public in an attack or accidental release.
The omission, said Andy Igrejas of the National Environmental Trust, ignores the one security measure "that would fully protect the public."
Chertoff said requiring those safer substitutes would represent "mission creep" - shifting the security focus to environmental concerns. He declined to specify whether federal regulations would trump state rules, a point of concern for governors and some in Congress.
Several Republican and Democratic lawmakers stopped short of endorsing the proposal but were pleased the Bush administration appeared ready to regulate the industry.
"The clearly stated intent of terrorists to cause maximum harm to the American people and to our economy makes these measures necessary," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.