WITH UNCUSTOMARY FERVOR, Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton has gone to court in a very bad cause. He has put the commonwealth's authority behind the efforts of Southwest Virginia's strip-mine operators to destroy the federal surface-mining law. The state and the industry have already persuaded a federal judge to suspend enforcement of the law in that area. If they should succeed in driving the Interior Department out of the mountaine, they could clear the way for perpetuating the very destruction that law was meant to stop.

The federal law does pose some challenges for the industry. Nearly all of Virginia's surface mining is on steep slopes where uncontrolled stripping is most likely to lead to landslides, erosion, floods, water pollution and sheer ugliness. Congress had good reason to set strict standards for reclaiming those areas and restoring stable hillsides in most cases. Mr. Dalton and the strippers claim that the federal rules, which they read in an extreme way, would drive small companies out of business and keep the area from creating more flat land for housing, industry and commercial development. In fact the law specifically permits the kinds of projects Mr. Dalton says he seeks-as long as they are planned before the mining starts.

If Mr. Dalton wanted to exert some useful leadership, he might start planning some constructive programs, as officials in West Virginia, Kentucky and other Appalachian mining states are managing to do. Instead, the governor and the industry has taken up the banner of states' rights. Incredibly, Mr. Dalton even asserted in Big Stone Gap this week that Virginia "is doing a very good job" in reclaiming its slopes. He must be kidding. The state senator from that area described the scene more accurately three years ago: "Our hills are eroded, scarred and criss-crossed by the high walls left by surface mining. Our streams are polluted and our windows blackened by coal dust." That's what leave-it-to-Richmond really equating the industry's convenience with the interests of the state.