Dan Stocker's helicopter hovered over a barren dusty strip mine carved out of the rolling green mountains of Southwestern Virginia. "This one really burns me up," he complained. "It's just a mess."
Heaps of sandstone and shale had been dumped illegally down the mountainside. Valuable topsoil had been thrown away. Drainage ponds, needed to prevent damaging erosion and pollution, were missing.
What really frustrates Stocker, the top Interior Department strip mining official in Virginia, is that he can do nothing to halt these environmental abuses.
A U.S. judge has barred Stocker and his subordinates from enforcing a landmark 1977 law that was designed to regulate strip mining throughout the United States.
For the moment, federal inspectors effectively are prohibited from setting foot on Virginia's strip mining sites. Even their helicopter surveillance flights have been denounced by coal industry officials as illegal.
At a time when the Carter administration is pressing for increased relaince on coal as an energy source, the strip mining battle taking place in this Appalachian Virginia region is an example of some of the inescap- able conflicts between the nation's environment and economic goals.
The federal government contends that the law, which requires strip miners to restore mine land to the way it looked before they dug it up, is necessary to prevent flooding, soil erosion, landslides, water pollution and other environmental damage.
The coal industry in Virginia - the nation's seventh-ranking coal producing state - charges that the federal law has already sharply increased mining costs, put some Virginia coal companies out of business and resulted in losses of hundreds of mining jobs. In addition, coal company officials complain - with some apparent justification - about abuses in the way federal officials have enforced their strip mining regulations.
Virginia officials argue that the federal government is infringing on the state's constitutional powers to regulate its coal fields. State and local government officials as well as industry spokesmen say that Stocker's agency does not understand the economic harm it has caused in Southwestern Virginia.
"There are a lot of fleas with the dog that is coal mining, but I think the people of this area ought to realize that it is the basis of the economy," said George Ee. Hunnicutt, the mayor of Norton, a city in the heart of the strip mining region. "Coal extraction is why we are here."
The drama now unfolding in federal courtrooms, Virginia mining towns and mountainsides more than 300 miles southwest of Washington has captured the attention of environmentalists and coal producers across the nation. It is described by government lawyers as one of two major constitutional tests of the 1977 strip mining law - and the first to result in s sweeping preliminary injunction against the law's key provisions.
The injunction, issued by U.S. District Court Judge Glen M. Williams in nearby Abingdon, was immediately appealed by the federal government to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond. The appellate court is currently weighing the issues. Meanwhile, Williams is also considering whether to order a permanent injunction against the strip-mining law and is expected to announce his ruling by September.
Williams, a conservative Republican steeped in the troubled economic history of the Appalachian region, conjured up gloomy prospects for Southwestern Virginia under the federal striping mining law when he announced his Feb. 14 order. Recalling a 1963 book about Appalachia's earlier era of economic depression called "Night Comes to the Cumberlands," Williams warned, "Now, what has happened by governmental action [is that] the beginning of the second night falling on the Cumberlands has begun."
The court fight also has caused wide rifts in Southwestern Virginia's coal mining communities.
It has pitted the strip mining town of Wise against another town, St. Charles, whose inhabitants say they repeatedly have suffered disastrous floods because of strip mining abuses. It has aligned mayor against mayor and miner against miner. There are disputes over technology, economics, regulatory techniques and philosophy. Emotions have run deep.
"When you destroy your whole country for the sake of a dollar bill, I can't go along with it," said Stewart Jessee, a 58-year-old coal miner who lives in Wise and is chairman of Virginia Citizens for Better Reclamation, a small environmental group. "What these people do out here is get rich overnight - ride a Lincoln Continental or a Mercedes-Benz overnight."
Years of controversy and political maneuvering preceded the enactment of the 1977 strip mining law. A House-passed bill was blocked in the Senate in 1972. President Ford vetoed similar legislation in 1975, saying it might impede coal production. When President Carter signed the 1977 measure, he complained that it had been "watered down." He would have preferred a "stricter" bill, he said.
The impact of the federal law differs to some degree from state to state. The Virginia coal industry's anger has centered chiefly on the requirement that companies restore mine lands to their approximate original contours after the coal has been extracted. About one-third of Virginia's coal tonnage - about 14 million tons annually in recent years - is produced by strip mining techniques.
Strip mining officials contend it is extraordinarily costly, environmentally unwise, frequently unsafe and sometimes plainly impossible to restore Virginia's mountain slopes to their original contours because they are so steep.
A 1973 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that 95 percent of the coal that could be extracted by strip mining in Virginia lay within steeply sloping mountains - mountainsides rising at angles greater than 20 degrees. This was the highest percentage of any state in the country.
In the lawsuit initially filed last October by the Virginia Surface Mining and Reclamation Association and 63 coal companies, the coal industry argued that it had been unconstitutionally deprived of its right to mine coal because of the 1977 law's stringent provisions and that the law was an improper infringement of Virginia's powers to regulate its own coal fields.
According to government lawyers, the other major constitutional test of the strip mining alw is pending in U.S. District Court in Indiana. A ruling is not expected in Indianapolis for some time.
The Indiana court challange, brought both by the Indiana state government and the coal industry, has raised constitutional issues similar to those in the Virginia suit, but it also has focused in part on a separate section of the law. A key issue in the Indiana suit is a U.S. requirement that prime farming lands be restored to agricultural productivity after strip mining is completed - a providing the industry says it cannot meet.
For Virginia, coal is a $1 billion-a-year industry. It provides thousands of jobs for the once-impoverished Southwestern region of the state. The industry pours hundreds of thousands of dollars into Virginia's political campaigns.
So there was scarely a ripple when Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton, a recipient of considerable coal company largesse during his 1977 election campaign, flew to Abingdon a few months ago to lend his support to the coal industry in its court challenge.
Testifying in the red brick U.S. courthosue where his father, now a semiretired senior judge, occasionally presided in the past, Dalton denounced the 1977 strip mining law as an attempt "to put the surface mining business out of business in Virginia."
States' rights was the central issue, Dalton said. "If we allow the federal government to determine . . . how we are going to use our land in the mountain counties of Southwest Virginia, I feel that it's just a foot in the door as to what they're going to be doing in te future with zoning of our forests, zoning of our cities, zoning of our counties throughout the commonwealth," Dalton declared.
As Stocker's helicopter flew over the scarred mountains of Russell, Dickenson, Wise and Lee counties, he pointed to rocky landslides, uprooted trees strewn across mountain slopes, high vertical gashes in mountainsides and clogged streams - all evidence, Stocker asserted, that Virginia was incapable of regulating strip mining without federal help.
The helicopter swerved past a long abandoned strip mine, ridged with landslides, near the frequently flooded St. Charles area. "That mountain's going to be like that forever," Stocker complained.
If the court injunction were lifted, federal inspectors from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement could move rapidly to halt strip mining abuses in Virginia by imposing stiff penalties, Stocker said. These include possible fines and shutdown orders. Stocker described the federal government enforcement powers as far more severe than those permitted under Virginia's strip mining regulations.
Virginia officials disagree only in part. They say that they are aware of current strip mining abuses cited by Stocker and already have taken action to stop them. But they also say their aim to "work with" the strip mining industry in an effort to curb illegal practices without putting mining companies out of business.
"In a lot of cases, OSM [the federal Office of Surface Mining] went out swinging with a civil penalty stick and cessation orders, in a lot of cases, the [mine] operators went out of business," said Benny Wampler, state and federal programs coordinator for the Virginia Division of Mined Land Reclamation, in an interview in Big Stone Gap.
Michael J. Quillen, vice president of the Norton-based Paramount Mining Corp., climbed out of his pickup truck at the edge of a strip mine a few miles north of Norton and stared somberly at a huge gray stretch of land, no longer fit for mining. An erroneous federal order, he said, had cost his company $160,000 worth of coal.
"We had 13 feet more to go to get to the seam of coal, and that's when they gave us that order to get out of there," Quillen recalled. "The ditch broke over [in a heavy rainstorm] and filled the hole in with silt and mud and everything else. We just covered it up."
The federal order that forced Quillen's company to stop digging later was overturned by an administrative law judge. Federal officials now concede the shutdown order was improper. For Quillen's company, howver, it represented a dead loss of coal and money - one of numerous added costs incurred under the 1977 federal law.
Larry Floyd sat on his front porch in the small town of St. Charles and recalled carting wheelbarrows of mud from the town's homes, shops and main street after repeated floods. The federal Office of Surface Mining is spending nearly $1 million to help prevent further damage.
"As far as prejudiced against strip mining, I am not. That's the livelihood of a lot of men. But there should be strict control," said Floyd, a town councilman and former strip miner. "Nobody ever put any money into getting [the St. Charles area $] cleaned out until the federal government got into it." CAPTION: Picture 1, Wise County, Va., by Ken Feil - The Washington Post; Picture 2, A worked-out strip mine in Wise County has left scarred and barren ridges, which critics say lead to landslides, clogged streams and disastrous floods. By Ken Feil - The Washington Post