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Dance troupe gets artistic raves, but its federal grant is a flop with Utah lawmakers

December 13, 2011

John McArdle, E&E reporter

Rep. Rob Bishop is a fan of the Repertory Dance Theater in downtown Salt Lake City, and the Utah Republican has attended many of the group's performances over the years. But he can't applaud a decision this week by U.S. EPA to give the group $25,000 to help produce an artistic program designed to teach school children about the dangers of air pollution.

"At a time when we are severely cutting back our military and when we are talking about cutting back unemployment insurance ... this is not the kind of thing that should be done by the federal government," Bishop said this morning. "This is an example of why our budget is out of control [and] where people are critical of what we're doing."

In the same week that Congress fiercely debates an omnibus appropriations package for the remaining months of the fiscal year, EPA announced this year's recipients of its annual Environmental Justice Small Grant Program. The agency has awarded more than $1 million in total grant funding to 46 nonprofit and tribal organizations that are working on ways to address the disproportional impact that pollution can have on low-income and minority communities.

Since the program was first instituted in 1994, EPA has provided about $23 million in total environmental justice small grants to nearly 1,300 individual projects.

Some of this year's grants were made to restore wetlands near urban areas or help weatherize homes in low-income neighborhoods. Many of the grants are for educational initiatives such as an effort in southern New Jersey to train migrant farm workers about the risks of pesticides.

But the Repertory Dance Theater initiative stands out as perhaps the most unusual, and could well be the most controversial, award this year.

According to a news release from EPA this week, the theater plans to conduct 10 arts and environmental programs in elementary schools in west and central Salt Lake City "to help students understand the impacts of air pollution on the environment and their health. ... Kinesthetic learning will be used to examine air quality issues and encourage youth and their families to adopt healthy living practices. Participants will be guided through fun problem solving activities focusing on understanding the need for clean air and preventative methods to decrease pollution at home."

The theater promotes its Green Map Arts/Environmental Residency Program as a way to use dance to help young people understand the concept of sustainability.

A review of a Green Map performance earlier this year that appeared in the arts section of the Salt Lake Tribune noted that "there is much to like about the project including the individual performances, the brilliant media design and the smart lighting. But one question remains: What is it? An educational show? A performance piece? A school or community project?"

When it comes to artistic merit, Bishop, a member of the House Natural Resource Committee, said the Repertory Dance Theater "is superb."

But it is just not an organization that EPA should be involved in supporting, he said.

"This is about budget priorities, and more importantly, it's about the concept of federalism," Bishop said this morning. "It's not just an issue that Washington spends too much money, it's that we spend it on too many different things."

Bishop said this EPA grant program is exactly the kind of project that "will eventually be lost in the morass and minutiae" of federal spending.

He added that state or local entities would be better at controlling and ensuring accountability in this type of program.

Bishop's Democratic colleague from Utah, Rep. Jim Matheson, also expressed concern about the Repertory Dance Theater grant this morning.

"This sounds very questionable to me," said Matheson, a conservative Democrat who is being targeted this cycle by state and national Republicans.

This week, the National Republican Congressional Committee is going after Matheson in a new television ad that ties the congressman to President Obama and paints him as an avid supporter of "Obama's failed stimulus bill" that "wasted billions."

Matheson said today that the theater is a "fine" outfit and that environmental education for children is important.

"There's a role to play on public education programs, but this doesn't sound like the way to go," he said. "This just doesn't sound like a good use of federal dollars."

Both men said that it is probably too late to do anything about this year's Environmental Justice Small Grant awards.

However, "I'm sure this is one of those issues that Congress will be looking at in the future," Bishop said.

In a release touting the Repertory Dance Theater award and another grant in Utah to promote a new recycling program, EPA's top environmental justice officer, Lisa Garcia, said that by supporting local environmental justice projects in underserved communities, EPA is expanding the conversation on environmentalism and advancing environmental justice in communities across the country.

"Community-based action and participation in environmental decisionmaking are critical to building healthy and sustainable communities," Garcia said.