PASSAGE of the historic Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, requiring restoration and reclamation of the land after it has been stripped for coal took years and years of congressional effort. Development of regulations by the Interior Department to put the law into effect took several more years. Administrative and judicial challenges to some of these regulations occupied more time, and most have now been settled. Finally affected state governments have finished or are in the final stages of working out individual programs tailored to each one's situation, but meeting the minimum standards of the federal law.

It may seem inconceivable that after all this, just a few yards from the finish line, anyone would try to call off the whole business and start over. But this is exactly what Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd is attempting to do -- and by means of a tactical maneuver.

A year ago Sen. Byrd and other coal-state members succeeded in passing a bill that would have erased the specific requirements of the federal law and allowed each state to set its own strip mining rules. Opposition in the House killed the bill. Sen. Byrd this time has attached his bill as an amendment to a merchant marine bill that has already passed the House.

As Senate forces lined up yesterday for a filibuster and cloture vote battle, opposition to the Byrd amendment was heard from a new quarter -- one that should give the senators some second thoughts. The govenors of Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota, three states that together account for the vast majority of western coal all voiced their opposition to the measure. Noting that each of their states had, after years work with the Department of the Interior, finally neared agreement on regulatory programs, the governors warned that passage of the Byrd amendment would only produce more delay, confusion and new problems.

National strip mining standards to prevent the kind of devastation that has been visited on Appalachia are necessary -- and inevitable -- if coal is to play a major part in the country's energy future. The federal standards have been debated and scrutinized down to the last comma. They will allow profitable strip mining and still protect the land. Further shortsighted, last-minute opposition will only delay the time when mining of the West's immense coal reserves can begin.