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ND PSC to participate in coal regulation lawsuit

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- North Dakota's Public Service Commission has received permission to participate in a federal lawsuit challenging its authority to regulate coal mining.

Two environmental groups have sued U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, asking his agency to take control from state regulators because two of the commission's three members, Brian Kalk and Kevin Cramer, accepted coal industry contributions for their PSC campaigns.

U.S. Magistrate Charles Miller Jr. granted the commission's request to intervene on Monday, giving the agency access to court filings and the ability to make its own arguments in the case.

The decision "opens the way now for the people of North Dakota to be represented in a case that they clearly have an interest in," Cramer said Tuesday.

"In some respects, it was a very large victory, although not a surprising one," he added.

Carrie La Seur, an attorney for the two environmental groups, the Dakota Resource Council and the Dacotah chapter of the Sierra Club, said they wanted to limit the commission's participation in the case to cut down on potential paperwork demands. Miller declined the request.

"We wanted to keep it from expanding the case ... so it doesn't become a big pile-on and doesn't increase the judicial resources that are required," said La Seur, who is also president of Plains Justice, an environmental advocacy group based in Billings, Mont.

Cramer and Kalk are Republicans. Salazar is a Democrat. Cramer is running against Democrat Pam Gulleson for North Dakota's open U.S. House seat this fall. The incumbent, Republican Rick Berg, is running for the U.S. Senate.

The environmental groups claim the PSC's intervention will oblige North Dakota taxpayers to defend Kalk's and Cramer's acceptance of coal industry contributions, which they believe are illegal.

Kalk and Cramer say the donations were legal, properly reported and did not influence their decisions as state regulators.

Gulleson said Tuesday that Cramer should return any coal industry donations or decline to participate in commission cases that involve his donors. If he does so, Gulleson said, "the entire state could move on from this fiasco."