updated 4/29/2004 10:01:09 AM ET 2004-04-29T14:01:09

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry on Thursday accused the Bush administration of being lax in requiring chemical plants to assess their risks of a catastrophic terrorist attack, saying “I wish their policies were as tough as their words.”

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Kerry criticized President Bush for accommodating the chemical industry, which favors voluntary efforts to improve security, because of campaign contributions from executives.

“It’s nearly two and a half years after 9/11 and the administration is still dragging its heels and we’re still fighting to secure chemical plants where a terrorist attack could be devastating,” Kerry said in remarks prepared for the National Conference of Black Mayors.

“I wish their policies were as tough as their words,” he said. “What are we waiting for? Why won’t they lead this nation to take every step to prevent one of our own chemical plants from being turned into a weapon of mass destruction against our own people?”

Kerry’s campaign said the Environmental Protection Agency listed more than 100 chemical plants where a terrorist attack could endanger more than 1 million people. Seven of the plants were in Philadelphia, where Kerry was speaking. Yet the Bush administration backed off EPA recommendations in favor of an industry approach, the campaign said.

Kerry said he will require chemical plants at risk of terrorist attack to implement adequate physical security, including fences, guards and surveillance. He said his plan calls for government action to implement the requirements only if plants fail to act, including assessing their vulnerability on an individualized basis.

The plan mirrors legislation Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, sponsored in early 2003 with Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., and other Democrats. It stalled in the Senate over opposition from Republicans, who said it sought to inappropriately micromanage the nation’s $450 billion chemical industry.

Bush's response
The Bush campaign contended that Congress is already considering many of the proposals Kerry cited.

“John Kerry is calling for measures that the president has advocated and is contained in legislation already before the Senate,” said campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt. He accused Kerry of “playing politics with homeland security.”

The Kerry campaign cited pledges to Bush during 2000 and 2004 of at least $1.5 million from 15 fund-raisers it said were tied to the chemical industry. The campaign also cited nearly $6.5 million in soft-money contributions — corporate, union or unlimited donations — from the industry to Republicans during the 2000 and 2002 campaigns.

Kerry would require the Department of Homeland Security to review and certify vulnerability studies for chemical plants deemed high-priority targets. There presently are no legal requirements for such plants to assess vulnerabilities or take security actions to guard against a terrorist attack, although the industry’s leading trade group, the American Chemistry Council, requires its members to do so.

The spokesman for the organization within the Department of Homeland Security that would be responsible for such audits did not return telephone and e-mail messages late Wednesday.

A key Senate committee approved a compromise bill supported by Republicans in October 2003 that would require security assessments to be sent to Homeland Security, but would not require any formal certification or approval.

Partial audit suggested
An industry spokesman, the chemistry council’s Marty Durbin, said government should consider auditing a percentage of all companies’ vulnerability studies, not each one.

“At least that provides for an incentive,” Durbin said.

The compromise bill also would require plant operators to study the use of less dangerous chemicals at facilities but would not require their use. That measure was supported by Democrats and many environmentalists, and Kerry has proposed requiring such uses of safer technologies whenever possible.

A spokesman for Rep. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said requiring chemical plants to make such changes was a bad idea. “What we’re saying is, ’Don’t mandate what the chemical companies make and how they do their business,”’ spokesman Will Hart said.

The Environmental Protection Agency found previously that 123 U.S. chemical facilities have toxic “worst-case” scenarios where more than 1 million people in surrounding areas could be at risk of exposure to a cloud of toxic gas if a release occurred, and that 700 plants could threaten at least 100,000 people nearby.

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