By Tress Klassen
In 1997, Scott Slesinger (JD ’75, BA ’72), then an environmental aide to Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., was approached by members of a chemical workers union trying to establish a Chemical Safety Board. “We were told that it would never get funded,” Slesinger recalls. “Over three days, with the senator’s help, we got the board up and operating, and now it’s done significant investigations of chemical facilities that have led to safer operations and probably saved many lives.”
It was a major victory, but it’s probably not insignificant that Slesinger, currently the legislative director for the D.C.-based Natural Resources Defense Council, reaches so far back in time to come up with one. In a long career devoted to environmental legislation and regulatory reform, with stints at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Senate and the House of Representatives, Slesinger has witnessed a steady increase in the political turbulence surrounding environmental legislation, and a hardening of battle lines.
“The system has so calcified that most regulations take a minimum of five years, often 10,” he says. “The politics on environment have changed; now we have one political party that is pretty much anti-environment. We’re playing a lot of defense right now.”
Obstacles aside, Slesinger loves his work. He first got a taste for politics as an undergraduate at UB, where he devoted much of his time to student government. It was the late ’60s, and between the Vietnam War, the killings at Kent State, the push for more student involvement in campus academic decisions and so on, it was, he says, “a very interesting time.” He went on to get his law degree from UB, and then to work at the EPA, where he helped draft some of the regulations for the 1977 amendments to the Clean Water Act.
Slesinger remains hopeful as he recalls past successes and looks toward the future. “I think it’s important to be optimistic,” he says, citing the EPA’s new carbon rules as a “major step forward.”
“The leadership we show will encourage other countries to do more,” he adds, “and that’s critical going forward.”