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Enviros sue Interior secy, ND PSC over coal rules

Dale Wetzel, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- Two environmental groups sued U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the North Dakota Public Service Commission on Wednesday, arguing the federal agency has ignored illegal campaign contributions to the commission's three Republican members.

One lawsuit, filed by the Dakota Resource Council, contends the North Dakota agency has violated federal laws by failing to get the federal Office of Surface Mining's approval for changes to state coal mining and land reclamation policies.

A second lawsuit, filed by the Dakota Resource Council and the Sierra Club's Dacotah chapter, alleges Public Service Commissioners Kevin Cramer, Tony Clark and Brian Kalk violated federal coal mining laws by accepting campaign donations from coal industry executives and company political action committees.

Clark plans to resign his commission seat soon to accept an appointment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Kalk and Cramer, who are opposing each other for the Republican nomination to run for the U.S. House this fall, took contributions from a coal company executive who wants to open a lignite mine near South Heart in southwestern North Dakota, the second lawsuit says.

Members of the DRC and Sierra Club who live near the proposed mine would lose "the peaceful enjoyment of their homes, recreational activities (and) the viability of their farming, ranching and outfitting livelihoods," the lawsuit says. "Their personal safety on local roads would be threatened immediately by commencement of mining activities, including blasting, digging and hauling."

Cramer said the Public Service Commission has always informed federal mining officials of the state's policy changes, and the Dakota Resource Council even gets copies of them.

The commission has not yet reviewed the South Heart coal mining application, Cramer said.

"It is unfortunate two organizations whose revenue comes from donor contributions would abuse their tax-exempt status with political attacks," Cramer said in an emailed statement. "The DRC and Sierra Club have no facts and no laws on their side, yet they attempt to circumvent justice with frivolous lawsuits aimed at embarrassing public officials guilty of nothing."

Both lawsuits were filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Bismarck. The two environmental groups are represented by Carrie La Seur, an attorney and president of Plains Justice, a nonprofit environmental group based in Billings, Mont.

The Dakota Resource Council and Sierra Club lawsuit targets Salazar. It asks a judge to conclude the North Dakota public service commissioners violated federal mining law by accepting coal industry campaign contributions and says the interior secretary should override the commission's regulation of coal mining until it complies with federal mining law.

The Dakota Resource Council is the only plaintiff in the second lawsuit, which argues that recent Public Service Commission coal mining policy changes lack the needed approval of federal regulators.

The commission should be barred from enforcing the changes and lose its primary role in North Dakota coal industry regulation until the situation is remedied, the lawsuit says.