BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — An attorney for opponents of a proposed coal mine southwestern North Dakota told a federal judge Friday that it's time to strip the state Public Service Commission of its responsibilities for regulating that industry.
The Sierra Club and Dickinson-based Dakota Resource Council filed a lawsuit last year accusing North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk and former commissioner Kevin Cramer — now the state's sole congressman — of taking improper campaign contributions from coal mining officials. Kalk and Cramer, both Republicans, have maintained that the donations were legal and properly reported.
"We need an untainted commission," the advocacy groups' attorney, Carrie La Seur, told U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland in Bismarck
The lawsuit names Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, a Democrat, saying she should require federal regulators to step in.
State and federal regulations forbid coal mining companies to make direct contributions to regulators.
The Public Service Commission was allowed to make its own arguments on Friday. Paul Selby, a Denver attorney hired by the state, told Hovland that the donations were legal and called the allegations by the groups "inflammatory."
But La Seur told the judge about $50,000 had been funneled to the two Republicans from coal industry officials since 2006. La Seur is also president of Plains Justice, a nonprofit environmental group based in Billings, Mont.
According to the lawsuit, Cramer received more than $10,000 in donations from Houston businessman Corbin Robertson Jr. and his wife, Barbara, from 2008 through 2011. Kalk got $5,500, the suit says.
Robertson manages Great Northern Project Development LP in Houston. A subsidiary, South Heart Coal LLC, has been developing a massive coal mine complex near South Heart, about 15 miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The company's mining application with the PSC is pending.
North Dakota is one of about two dozen coal-producing states that are allowed under federal law to regulate surface mining operations. State laws must be at least as stringent as federal law, and the federal government can intervene if states aren't following their own or federal law.
Joanna Brinkman, a Justice Department attorney representing the Interior Department, said she could not recall that ever happening nor is it happening now in North Dakota.
The Dakota Resource Council also argued Friday in a separate lawsuit that the PSC violated federal laws by failing to get approval for changes to state coal mining and land reclamation policies. Government lawyers disputed that.
PSC records show that the state has paid Selby and his firm about $150,000 to date for his work on the lawsuits.
Hovland said he expects to rule on both lawsuits within a month.
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