Once a week this winter, as regularly as the snowfalls that have blanketed the coal country around this tiny Western Maryland mining town, Alfred Whitehouse has driven 200 miles to Annapolis to trade his work-worn geologist's clothes for the dark pin stripes of a lobbyist.

The transition has not been all roses for Whitehouse, a burly and bearded environmental engineer with one of Maryland's largest coal companies, who is more accustomed to the rolling Appalachians and jagged strip mines of this area than the political thickets of the General Assembly.

But those trips to the legislature may have finally paid off, Whitehouse said. He and other leaders of a feverish lobbying effort at the 1985 legislature believe they are on the verge of abolishing one of the toughest strip-mining laws in the country, a state regulation that environmentalists say is crucial to the preservation of streams, forests, wildlife and homes in much of western Maryland.

The legislative repeal of the 1975 law banning mining of the steepest coal fields in the state is "finished business," declared Joseph A. (Jay) Schwartz III, a Baltimore lawyer hired by the Maryland Coal Association to lobby for the repeal's passage. Schwartz, whom the association hired because of his successful lobbying record in Annapolis for other large industries, said he is certain that two key House and Senate committees will approve a pending repeal bill that the slumping coal industry insists is vital to its economic health. The panels will hear testimony on the bill Tuesday and Wednesday.

If the committees approve the legislation, it will be over the objections of the state Department of Natural Resources and a loose but vocal coalition of conservationists from Allegany and Garrett counties. Many of those conservationists are even now pessimistic about preserving the ban on steep-slope mining.

"The skids are greased for passage of this bill," said Edward J. Mason, who drafted the ban when he was a Republican state senator from Cumberland and who is waging a shoestring lobbying effort to offset the coal association's well-financed campaign.

The effort to overturn the steep-slope mining ban marks a dramatic turnaround for the association that less than a decade ago was little more than a loosely organized group of mine owners and supporting industries. Schwartz, one of a few lobbyists who earned more than $52,000 working before the legislature last year, is the first professional lobbyist hired by the association, which represents 23 coal producers and 71 related businesses in Maryland. Schwartz's contract with the association pays him about $1,000 a week, an industry spokesman said.

By hiring Schwartz and sending Whitehouse to Annapolis, the coal association has followed the conventional political wisdom that "outsiders" need a well-connected insider to steer legislation through the General Assembly.

In recent weeks, Schwartz has engineered a behind-the-scenes public relations effort -- complete with glossy brochures, slide shows, catered breakfasts and a private steak dinner at a posh Annapolis hotel -- to persuade senators and delegates to approve the repeal.

Those efforts apparently are paying dividends now. For instance, state Sen. Sidney Kramer (D-Montgomery), who was Schwartz's dinner guest last week, said the lobbyist's presentation "sounded very, very persuasive."

"I was influenced by their thinking," said Kramer, a member of the Senate committee that will vote on the proposed repeal. "I would not make a commitment . . . but Jay presented a very effective report."

The timing of the repeal effort could not be better for the state's coal interests, which have responded to a slump in the worldwide market by laying off scores of workers in the past year and reducing mining operations to four and sometimes three days a week. The depressed market has hit especially hard in Allegany and Garrett counties, where unemployment is about 12 percent. Locally, the industry employs about 3,500 people, 1,039 of them miners who were paid $33 million in wages and benefits in 1983.

Mining in Maryland is concentrated along five coal basins -- vast deposits that stretch like long fingers from Pennsylvania, through Maryland and to West Virginia. During the early 1900s in the heyday of Maryland coal mining, small towns like Barton, Klondike, Borden Shaft and Ocean sprang up here in the little valley of George's Creek, which runs the length of one of the most productive basins.

Most of those communities survive today, clinging to steep hills that are a patchwork of mines, fields and forests, as if to symbolize their dependence on local coal production.

The state senator and four delegates who represent Allegany and Garrett counties are united in their support for legislation to allow coal companies to mine hills steeper than a 20-degree angle, saying that 38 million tons of coal -- a 25-year supply -- lie beneath those slopes.

The legislators, most of whom have either personal or political ties to the coal companies, contend the repeal is needed to give Maryland a competitive leg up in world markets.

Proponents also say that existing state and federal mining laws, especially the 1977 U.S. Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, would adequately protect the environment if the repeal is passed. Maryland is the only one of 26 coal-producing states with such a rigorous ban on steep-slope mining.

"Ours is a damn good bill," said Sen. John N. Bambacus, a soft-spoken former Marine from Frostburg, who upset fellow Republican Mason in 1982 after receiving large campaign contributions from local coal companies.

"My name wouldn't be on it if I didn't think it was best for the people I represent," Bambacus said.

But many voters in Bambacus' district disagree, pointing to the repeal legislation as fresh evidence that coal companies care more for profit margins than for neighbors who endure the frequent blasting, thick coal dust clouds, long-term water contamination and periodic flooding that result from abandoned and current mine operations. Repealing the ban on steep-slope mining would only exacerbate those problems, opponents say.

"It's the same old story of Appalachia," said Wayne Spiggle, a Cumberland physician active in the conservation movement. "The rights of the people living in coal fields don't have parity with those who harvest the coal."

For Spiggle and others, the value of the steep-slope mining ban goes far beyond a prohibition on such mining. In the past 10 years, the law has become a symbol of grass-roots conservation, a small victory in the struggle to curb powerful coal companies, they said.

But Whitehouse and other industry officials have little patience for symbols at a time when coal companies are faring poorly. "Our opponents are abolitionists for the most part," Whitehouse said last week while showing a visitor around a busy strip mine here. "Their thinking is: 'Let's not move another stone.' "

Both sides in the issue agree that the fate of the steep-slope mining law hinges on Gov. Harry Hughes, who many believe will run for the U.S. Senate in 1986 and who supporters of the ban hope will veto the repeal bill if the legislature passes it.

The governor "wants to stay in good stead with the environmentalists," said Schwartz, who compared the mining issue to Hughes' highly publicized effort to save the Chesapeake Bay. "Still, if he gets the bill, I think he signs it."

Natural Resources Secretary Torrey C. Brown, whose advice to his boss Hughes will be important, said he will fight the repeal because the coal industry has produced no "hard, significant new data" supporting it.

Like bottle legislation that has been doomed to failure in past years, the repeal legislation will die in the legislature, Brown predicted. "There's a momentum to these things. The chances of lifting a ban that's been on the books for 10 years is not good."

Yet, even within Brown's own department, there are deep divisions as to whether Maryland should follow nearby coal states such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania and allow steep-slope mining.

"There's merit on the side of the coal operators," said Paul Massicot, head of the state Energy Administration. "It would be possible to mine and reclaim adequately on steep slopes in Maryland."

"On the other hand, we don't agree with the coal operators that the techniques are that sure and certain to relax the prohibition," Massicot added. "We don't mind being the only state with such a law."