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2 organizations threaten to sue regarding South Heart coal application

BISMARCK -- Two North Dakota organizations are threatening to sue if Public Service commissioners Kevin Cramer and Brian Kalk don't remove themselves from making decisions about the South Heart Coal mining permit application.

Kalk said the notice of intent to file a lawsuit "has no basis in fact and is nothing more than a political attack."

The Dakota Resource Council and the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club say it's a conflict of interest that Cramer and Kalk accepted campaign contributions from officials connected to the coal mining company.

A letter to the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement says Cramer accepted $11,150 in donations from 2008 to 2010 and Kalk received $5,500 between 2008 and 2009. The groups said they did not find a conflict of interest for Commissioner Tony Clark.

A 60-day notice of intent to file a federal civil lawsuit was filed Monday requesting not only that Cramer and Kalk be removed from deliberations but that they return the campaign contributions.

"When public officials take money from those who will benefit from their decisions, it means our government isn't working the way it should," Wayde Schafer of the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club said in a statement.

Cramer and Kalk ignored a previous request to recuse themselves voluntarily, he said.

"We are now taking the next step to make sure that mining companies don't have the opportunity to simply buy their way into a permit," Schafer said.

Kalk, who is a Republican candidate for U.S. House, said the complaints are "a politically timed and motivated attack."

"This lawsuit is frivolous and political," he said in a statement. "They were lawful and legal donations made by an individual to my campaign. They were reported as required and, as with all contributions, transparent for all to see."

All Public Service Commission cases are decided after a thorough record is developed, the public has a chance for input and all issues are considered, Kalk said.

"These groups are searching for an issue," Kalk said in a statement. "This is a clear case of leftist groups using the courts to advance their political agenda. The people of North Dakota will not be fooled."

Cramer did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

See Tuesday's Dickinson Press for more on the story.