First came the aides to Interior Secretary James G. Watt, reporting that their strip mining programs have lightened regulatory burdens while protecting coalfield citizens and the environment.

Just behind them came environmentalists and two coalfield citizens, charging the Interior Department with neglect, accusing its leaders of "cutting the heart out" of the young federal program.

Five years after the landmark federal strip mining law took effect, the clash of philosophies that dominated the original debate over the act was repeated yesterday as the House Interior Committee opened annual hearings on the strip mining program.

The clash centers now on Interior's widespread changes in the program, including hundreds of proposed revisions in stringent rules written by the Carter administration, and new policies increasing the latitude of state regulators and the coal industry.

James R. Harris, director of Interior's Office of Surface Mining, declared the new approach a "success," citing a drop in citizen complaints filed with the agency -- from 1,130 in 1980 to 444 in the fiscal year that ends this month.

He called the proposed rule changes an "effort to dampen at dead center what could have been a wildly swinging regulatory pendulum, given the far off-center position from which it started."

Coal industry spokesmen and the head of West Virginia's state strip mining office praised Harris' record.

However, environmentalists submitted hundreds of pages of analyses concluding that the proposed rule changes would "turn the clock back to the . . . era when private greed rather than the public interest determined how coal mining was conducted," in the words of a 347-page National Wildlife Federation report.

Coalfield citizens told the committee they blame jurisdictional confusion between state and federal strip mine regulators for a mining disaster that killed a woman in Ages, Ky., last December and for the contamination of drinking water supplies in Ragland, W.Va.

The attacks sparked little fire among members of the House Interior panel, whose members helped write the federal strip mining law. Most members were absent, "caught up in pressing legislation," according to one aide.

Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Interior panel, who is regarded as the "father" of the law, said after the hearing that the Watt program "is not as bad as the critics had feared -- or as I had feared -- although I think there are some instances where they have not acted in the spirit of the law."

Clark Woolum, son of Nellie Woolum who died when sludge from a coal mine impoundment washed over her home, fought back tears as he told the House panel of his mother's long-running complaints to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, to the state of Kentucky and to OSM about the unsafe impoundment.

OSM officials yesterday said they did not have jurisdiction over the impoundment, as charged by environmentalists. Plans for the structure were approved by MSHA, they said.

Don St. Clair of Ragland, where citizens have been warned that much running water is unsafe for drinking and cooking, blamed the problem on discharges from a large coal plant.

OSM officials said their studies show Ragland's water is not contaminated. They also said state officials -- not the federal agency -- are responsible for inspecting charges like St. Clair's.