From a helicopter fluttering through the hot haze over Virginia's Cumberland Mountains 325 miles southwest of Washington, the passenger can watch the good and bad effects of the region's coal boom real past below.

In the streets of Wise and Norton towns that declined for 25 years during the regional recession that made Appalachia synonymous with hard times, coal trucks and late model automobiles pass in a steady stream. New housing dots the hillsides around the towns and the main roads are lined with the low, steel structures that house the office of surface mine operators and heavy equipment dealers.

The banks that once occupied the ground floors of aging red brick buildings in town centers now stand out as scattered, new structures on the edge of black parking lots.

Everywhere, the shiny outlets of the fast-food chains suggests a rising personal disposable income in an area where family nutrition long relied on food stamps and garden plots.

These are the signs of prosperity, but even a brief helicopter flight also shows that this prosperity arrived at a cost.

Northwest of Wise, the steep slopes of Little Black Mountain lie bare, stripped of the hardwood forests that slopes are covered with the rocky rubble that was ripped away to reach the thin seams of coal that run through the mountain.

On the edge of Norton, the still raw site of a complete hilltop mine reaches to within a few feet of the back doors of the modest home on 13th Street.

One of the 13th Street residents, retired coal miner, Ewin Davison, 65, said in an interview that the dust created by the months-long strip mining operation covered the neighborhood so thickly that his 14-year-old son, Jeffrey Lynn, contracted silicosis.

Davidson also said blasting at the mine site broke windows and cracked the chimney of his home and sent rocks flying through the roofs of at least two houses in the area.

About two blocks away on Park Avenue, Norton's main streets, Mrs Joseph Fischer showed visitors what she said was damage caused to her 12-year-old brick home by strip mine blasting. It included a four-foot crack in the block walls of the basement and wide separations between the basement floor and walls.

Most of the strip mines, of course, are located in lightly populated rural areas, but the mines also have caused complaints. In small communities of Lee County near Pennington Gap, residents contend that recent flooding of their low-lying homes was caused by rapid runoff from stripped areas high on the mountainsides.

Mud covered roads in front of the homes and buried tomato plants and other vegetables in their garden, they said, as the heavy rains of late spring carried slit away from the mine sites.

Against this background of prosperity and grievances - both stimulated by strip mining - some dramatic developments are occurring in Virginia's coal-fields.

For the first time, a citizens organization of coal field residents - the still small but rapidly growing Virginia Citizens for Better Reclamation (VCBR) - is increasing pressure for local, state and federal government controls on mining.

At the same time, the state agency that regulates strip mining is about to impose significantly more stringent regulations on mining methods and Congress is near enactment of even tougher federal strip mine restraints.

There continues to be fierce debts over how effective these proposed regulations will be in limiting the adverse effects of strip mining. There also are questions about how much they will add to the price of coal, a major factor in rising electric bills.

In Virginia, these debates are developing what appear to the last years of the controversial strip mining industry. According to figures recently published by the state planning district commissions in the coal fields, strip mine production in Virginia should total 12.4 million tons this year, about one-third of the state's total coal production.

It is projected to decline steadily until 1990 when Virginia's surface mine reserves are expected to be deplated. By then, all of Virginia's coal will come from deep mines, from which production is projected to rise from about 26 million tons this year to 60 million tons by 1990.

But before the strip mining era ends in Virgina, the planning commissions' surveys predict that about 127 square miles in seven counties will have been disturbed. This would be roughly 8 per cent of the region in which the mines are located. The majority of this area, about 75 square miles, already was mined by 1975, the surveys showed.

There appear to be three explanations for the pressure for tougher strip mine regulations so late in the day of strip mining in Virginia. One is that mining activity increased rapidly after the 1973 Arab Oil embargo and attracted more complaints. Another is that Virginia strip mining is occurrinng at a time of proposed federal regulation of a growing nationwide industry.

The third reason appears to be Frank Kilgore, a 25-year-old descendant of 18th century Irish settlers of Southwest Virginia and the founder of VCBR, Kilgore, the son and grandson of coal miners, lives with his wife and two children in Honey Branch hollow near the town of St. Paul on the eastern edge of Virginia's coal fields.

He understands as well as anyone why it has taken so long for anyone to start a movement for improved strip mine reclamation practices in Southwest Virginia, a part of the country that tends to resist advice from "outsiders."

"People just don't have the effectiveness in getting the government to act in this area that they do in other places," he said in an interview. "Looking down here - rocks through the roofs of houses and silicosis from the dust created by strip mining."

Kilgore said he has wanted to work for strip mine controls ever since he was about 12 years old and first saw the results of strip mining on hunting trips with his father near Honey Branch.

He organized VCBR and put together a slide show used to promote the organization in 1976 on a Southern Appalachian leadership grant. The organization, he said, has been financed during the first 18 months of its activities on grants totaling $18,000 from the Ford Foundation and churches.

Kilgore said he has been the target of threats and assaults since he began his campaign for strip mine controls. He said someone in a passing car fired a shot at him last Christmas Eve as he stood in the yard of his home. The driver of what appeared to him to be the same car also tried to force him off a mountainous road one night as he drove home from nearby Wise.

Nevertheless, Kilgore said VCBR has steadily grown to 350 members and is gaining influence partly because it is based in the coal fields and includes coal miners.

"At least people are talking in the open about better reclamation of mined land." he said. "That has never happened down here before."

Kilgore says the organization does not oppose strip mining - "That would be ridiculous in the coal fields" - but advocates regulations that would prevent pushing spoil (land stripped from above the coal seam) down the mountainsides and reduce erosion that fills coal field streams with silt.

VCBR also is working for tighter regulation of blasting that would prevent the kind of damage reported by Norton residents. Kilgore said that Edward S. Grandis, VCBR's only full time employee, has drafted major provisions restricting balasting that is contained in the federal legislation.

"I hate to see the federal government take over strip mining regulation" Kilgore said, "but the state has taken hands-off policy. The basic provisions the federal bill couldn't be passed in Virginia in 20 years.

Surface mine operators have strongly, opposed the federal bill. Some of them have claimed that a provision requiring operators to restore stripped land to its original contour would end strip mining in Virginia because of the steep slopes in its coal fields.

However, James A. Brown Jr., one of the most successful coal operators in Wise County, believes that stripping will continue under the federal bill-but at a higher price to consumers and with higher profits for operators.

"You can do anything in the way of reclamation that the public will pay for in higher coal prices," he said in an interview. "We make 20 per cent before taxes on each ton of coal. We make 20 per cent of $22 now. If the federal government adds to the price of coal through reclamation costs, we'll make 20 per cent of the higher price."

Brown estimates that the federal legislation would add about $6 a ton to the price surface mine coal now selling for $22. "That's about a mid-range estimate." he said. "The conservationists say much less and the real passimists say much more."

Brown said he generally supports efforts to reduce strip mine erosion that fills streams and reservoirs with silt, but believes that much in the proposed state and federal regulations are unnecessary and may even contribute to erosion.

"I don't think we should add to the price of coal for things that are not needed," he said. "If the government simply added a $4 a ton tax on coal instead of adding to reclamation costs and then decided how it should spend the tax money. I don't think it would spend it for the things being required in the federal bill. It would spend it on the things we need, like roads, schools and energy research."