Seventeen months ago, sitting at a table in the White House Rose Garden, President Carter said he would have preferred a "stricter" strip-mine control bill than the one before him.
But the resident went on at that ceremony to sign into law the bill that put environmental and Iand-reclamation controls on an industry that last year produced about 54 percent of the nation's coal.
Now the environmentalists who cheered Carter on that day in 1977 are fearing that the White House has changed its signals on strip-mine enforcement.
Their concerns evolve from a series of events in recent days, in which the president's anti-inflation watchdogs have raised questions about the stripmine regulations being put in final form at the Department of Interior.
The latest event occurred yesterday when officials of the White House, its Council of Economic Advisers and the Department of Interior met privately to discuss Interior's regulations.
CEA and the Regulatory Analysis Review Group assigned by Carter to analyze cost factors and the inflationary impact of any new federal regulations have raised questions about Interior's work.
Hope Babcock, speaking for the Interior Department, insisted after yesterday's meeting that CEA and the White House are not pressuring the department to water down the new regulations.
"We don't think our regulations are inflationary. The Office of Surface Mining never has agreed it proposed regulations will cause unnecessary costs," Babcock said.
Referring to the White House, she added, "Until we hear loud and clear from the domestic policy staff of from the Oval Office to go slow, we are not going to go slow. This agency is not changing its clurse."
Yet envieronmental groups watching over the OSM regulation writers were so "troubled" by yesterday's meeting that they urged Interior Secretary Cecil B. Andrus -- to no avail -- to cancel the session before it began.
In a letter to Andrus, the Environmental Policy Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation and the Council of Southern Mountains said the closed meeting violated the department's "scrupulous" open-meeting policy. Fueling their worries were two points:
OSM's period for public comment on the proposed regulations -- expected to become final in a few weeks -- ended on Nov. 27, Yet CEA was allowed, in effect, to reopen the record, although Interior denied that it was an actual reopening.
Most of the new cost and inflation questions raised by CEA came directly from coal industry officials, according to a compilation of CEA memos and file documents made public yesterday.
The documents reflected extensive efforts by the industry and officials of the Department of Energy to persuade CEA that the regulations would create serious problems for coal operators.
Babcock would provide no details of points discussed yesterday, but she said the meeting centered on an earlier study by the analysis review group that raised questions in five key areas.
The reviewers said that some of the regulations appeared to be more stringent than the law required, that OSM had not adequately analyzed the impact of some sections, and that "substantial" savings could occur with rewriting of some of the regulatory proposals.
Since last summer, when OSM moved into high gear preparing the regulations, the coal industry has mounted an extensive publicity campaign that stresses points identical to these.
The campaign coincides with other business and industrial complaints that environmental and occupational health and safety regulations are major contributors to inflation.
Carter last fall ordered establishment of the review process.
Interior's Babcock said CEA's concern were "narrowed" by yesterday's session. Unless Andrus hears more from CEA Chairman Charles L. Schultze by next Friday, she said, OSM will go ahead with its regulations as planned.