When Republican Gov. John N. Dalton was in office here a few years ago, there were few businessmen who had easier access to the statehouse than a small-town lawyer from Southwest Virginia named James W. McGlothlin.

McGlothlin made a killing in the coal boom of the early 1970s and then became a big contributor to state political campaigns. During Dalton's 1977 race for governor, McGlothlin and his partners at United Coal Co. in Bristol contributed an estimated $140,000--an investment that helped win him a seat on the Virginia Port Authority and invitations to accompany the governor on coal export missions out of the state.

In 1981, however, McGlothlin showered his largesse on Democrat Charles S. Robb. In January of that election year, he and Virginia Coal Association lobbyist Blaine Carter staged an unprecedented $25,000-a-ticket Robb fund-raiser at United Coal's dining room, flying in Robb, then lieutenant governor, and other Democrats from Richmond on coal company jets. When Robb flew out a few hours later, his campaign was richer by more than $250,000.

McGlothlin, who since has been named by Robb to the Governor's Advisory Board on Industrial Development, symbolizes the steadily growing political power of Virginia's coal industry. Tucked away in an isolated corner of the state that was long forgotten by most officials in Richmond, McGlothlin and other coal executives have in recent years found themselves assiduously courted and stroked by governors, senators, congressmen and state legislators.

"What the industry has done, in effect, has been to buy up all the politicians of both parties," charges State Sen. Ray Garland, a Roanoke Republican and an industry critic. State officials have "allowed the industry to write its own ticket," he says. "The general attitude is, 'You tell us what you want done and we'll do it.' "

It is a complaint, first heard under Republican Dalton, that is being openly repeated under Democrat Robb. On issues ranging from coal mine safety to environmental regulations, critics say the Robb administration has allowed the industry to influence and, in some cases, shape state policies.

"I think it's regrettable that there's a suggestion of improper influence," Robb said in a recent interview when asked about his relations with the state's coal executives. "No question about the fact that with most of the major campaign givers, I have had a personal relationship that does indeed flow from that kind of financial assistance.

"If I get a call or an invitation from one of those individuals, I would attempt to respond . . . and yes, there is probably a relationship between the things you do in that capacity." But those relationships, the governor says, have "nothing to do with decisions on the merits that affect state interests."

Environmentalists and others, notably the United Mine Workers--who endorsed Robb for governor--are skeptical.

About a month after Robb took office, a UMW delegation called on Betty Diener, the governor's new secretary of commerce, urging her to replace Chief Mine Inspector McLynn Sharpe, a former Westmoreland Coal Co. official appointed by Dalton, with somebody who wasn't tied to the coal industry.

"The first thing we were told when we talked to Diener was: 'You know, the coal companies contributed a lot of money to the governor's campaign,' " said UMW lobbyist Hobart Honaker. "We told her we didn't think that should have anything to do with miner safety."

Although Sharpe eventually was replaced, the UMW wasn't any happier with his successor. Robb appointed Harry Dean Childress, an official of Clinchfield Coal Co., which had contributed $32,000 to Robb's election. Last month, disclosures that Childress owned nearly $19,000 in stock in the Pittston Co., Clinchfield's corporate parent, produced a storm of criticism in the coal fields and led Robb to remove him as head of the state's investigation into a June 21 explosion at a Clinchfield mine that killed seven miners.

While Diener, Childress' boss, says she does not remember making the precise comments recalled by Honaker, she said that she "tells everybody that the coal companies have historically contributed very large amounts of money to both parties.

"What that gets from me is an awful lot of attention," says Diener, a former dean of business administration at a Norfolk college. "They're one of the largest industries in the state.

"I love these guys the coal operators ; I think they're neat. There's not a hidden bone in their body." But she hastens to add, "I make it a point to talk to everybody"--including union and environmental groups as well as industry leaders. "I think that's very different in this administration," she says.

While few dispute that the Robb administration has made a determined effort to reach a more diverse constituency, critics say basic state policies on coal haven't changed since the Dalton days. Most prominently, there is the continuing feud between the state and the federal government over environmental controls on surface mining -- an issue on which some environmentalists say Robb is more conservative than Interior Secretary James Watt.

"The Robb administration has taken a hard-line stance in favor of the industry," contends Mark Squillace, a lawyer with the Environmental Policy Institute in Washington.

The dispute is over the 1977 Surface Mining and Reclamation Act, which, for the first time, placed federal environmental controls on strip-mining operations, requiring operators to return the land to its "approximate original contour."

Congress, attempting to protect small "pick and shovel" operators, included an exemption for mines of fewer than two acres. In Virginia, many large operators took advantage of the provision by contracting out to smaller companies that then claimed the two-acre exemption. More than 1,000 of such two-acre mines are estimated by federal officials to have been listed in Virginia after the enactment of the law, turning the state into what environmentalists say is the worst abuser of the two-acre provision in the country.

"It's the large companies that are doing 75 to 80 per cent of the abuse," says Tom Galloway, a Washington lawyer with the Council of the Southern Mountains and other environmental groups. "They're the ones making the money off this."

The Office of Surface Mining in Watt's Interior Department has labeled many of the two-acre operations illegal and charged that such operations will cause "significant and imminent environmental harm," including acid mine discharges, sediment drainage into streams and underground water supplies, and other dangers.

Some large mining companies have offered to compromise on the issue and say they no longer file for the two-acre exemption. But federal efforts to crack down on those that do repeatedly have been stymied by the state, first under Dalton and now under Robb. Last fall, Robb personally authorized a lawsuit challenging the federal government's enforcement of two-acre sites.

The reason, Robb administration officials say, is that the alleged environmental abuse "simply doesn't exist" and the threat of harm has been exaggerated by Interior officials to appease the environmentalists. More to the point, though, Robb, echoing a long-held coal industry position, says he simply doesn't believe that sections of the federal law--a landmark for the country's environmental movement--were needed in the first place.

"We have opposed some elements of that act from the outset," said the governor. "I always thought that in terms of surface mining, the return to original contour was unrealistic and certainly not in keeping with the economic interests of that area in some instances."

As for damage from surface mining: "I've been there enough and looked at enough of those situations that aesthetically--and that's usually the way you get at the emotional angle here--I do not find it aesthetically distasteful where it has been properly reclaimed," Robb says.

Environmentalists greet such comments with astonishment. "What weird system would have Robb trying to protect the abuses and Watt trying to stop them?" asks lawyer Galloway. "Why in Virginia is the coal industry so uniquely powerful?"

The answer lies in part in the state's recent past. Before the Arab oil embargo of 1973, the state's coal operators were a fiercely independent but politically impotent group.

All that changed amid the coal boom of the 1970s--an explosion that overnight transformed small-time operators into millionaires and led to new demands from the rest of the state that the industry share its wealth. In 1976 Republican Gov. Mills E. Godwin proposed a coal severance tax that enraged the industry. After passing the state Senate, Godwin's tax was defeated by one vote in the House Finance Committee--an experience that, in a political sense Carter says, "woke everybody up down there."

After that the Virginia coal executives began making major financial contributions in statewide elections. And coal operators got a "bigger bang for the buck" for two reasons: The industry's concerns, mostly restricted to the state's remote southwest, rarely conflicted with other powerful economic or political interests elsewhere in the state. (Indeed, Northern Virginia legislators, seeking allies in their quest for more Metro transit money, had joined with the coal country legislators to help kill Godwin's coal tax.) And secondly, Virginia--in contrast to many other states and the federal government--puts no restrictions on corporate contributions to political campaigns, thus making possible events such as McGlothlin's $25,000-a-ticket affair for Robb.

"It gives us some influence that we didn't use to have," said McGlothlin, the president of United Coal. He said he sought influence in Richmond not just to block environmental regulations, but to help out his region, bringing more jobs, money and attention to Southwest Virginia.