Ted Kennedy's 5 Greatest Contributions to Environmental Health

The late senator may be best known for health care reform, but he also worked to clean up waterways, improve gas mileage, and protect natural resources.

August 26, 2009

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—There was no mistaking the primary goal of the late Senator Edward Kennedy. The Massachusetts Democrat called universal health coverage the focus of his career, and continued to fight for it even after he became incapacitated with a brain tumor in 2008. However, he cared about more than just health care. Kennedy was also a firm supporter of environmental issues, and although he wasn't on any of the Senate's environment committees, "he was such a powerful force that if he was behind a piece of legislation, it definitely made a difference," says David Willett, national press secretary for the nonprofit Sierra Club. "He was an environmental champion and consistently voted for environmental protections whenever possible."

From health care reform to cleaning up toxic waste, here are five of Senator Kennedy's most notable contributions:

#1: Affordable health care for everyone. Senator Kennedy may be best known for his efforts to create an inclusive health care system, but his contributions to the health of the American public certainly don't stop there. He led efforts in 1985 to establish the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), which gives laid-off workers temporary access to employer-provided insurance and, with Orrin Hatch, in 1997, he established the Children's Health Insurance Program so uninsured children could have access to care. He was also a patient-safety advocate, sponsoring a bill that, if passed, would have provided legal protections for people willing to report medical errors; however, the bill stalled in committee.
#2: Environmental justice. In supporting efforts to establish and clean up Superfund sites, Kennedy helped protect the low-income communities disproportionately affected by polluting companies, says Willett. Taxing companies that abandoned their toxic messes allowed him to protect these areas from water and air pollution. In addition, he was a longtime supporter of the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps needy families cut their energy bills through weatherization and more energy-efficient building materials.
#3: Better access to mass transit. Kennedy often fought to keep government funding flowing to Amtrak. "The advantages of Amtrak are really felt in the Northeast," says Willett, "so there's definitely a lot of support for it there. But it's something that's required strong defenders, because that's not the case everywhere else." At the local level, he garnered support for something called the North-South Rail Link, which would have linked Boston's two separate Amtrak stations so commuters could travel from Washington to Maine without having to crisscross Boston to catch their trains.
#4: More fuel-efficient cars. In the 1970s, Ted Kennedy demanded that auto companies improve their fuel-economy standards in response to rising oil prices. "That was a tough lift to make happen at the time," says Willett. "The auto industry was fighting it tooth and nail," just as they were in 2007 when Kennedy again pushed the industry to improve fuel economy. "In terms of energy and the environment, this was one of the most significant contributions Kennedy made," Willett adds, "because it reduces oil dependence and pollution."
#5: Renewable-energy projects. Kennedy made no bones about his opposition to the Cape Wind Project, a proposed offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound that would be the largest in the country, citing its potential damage to the ecology of the sound and to the state's fishing and tourism industries. But he fought hard to support other efforts to promote renewable energy "He definitely was a strong supporter of investment in renewable energy all over the country," says Willett, adding that as recently as this year, Kennedy was able to secure $25 million in funds from the 2009 stimulus package to build a wind-energy testing facility in Massachusetts.