The battle over Interior Secretary James G. Watt's strip-mining program flared up again yesterday when the National Wildlife Federation asked a federal judge to force Watt to penalize officials of hundreds of mining companies alleged to have violated reclamation rules.

Charging "chronic breach" of a 1980 court settlement, the federation and four other groups said Watt is required to state in writing why Interior has not sought criminal charges or penalties against corporate officials in 8,000 instances of rule violations. Interior has sought penalties in two cases, and has explained its actions in 23 cases, the motion says.

Interior's lawyer acknowledged in a letter that the agency has been "erratic" in obeying the settlement, but blamed the problem on negligence by the Carter administration, saying Interior now is trying to cooperate.

"The plaintiffs are asking us to do what they know we're already doing," said James R. Harris, director of the Office of Surface Mining. He said the OSM and Interior's solicitor have set up task forces to clear the backlog.

Federation lawyer Norman Dean called Harris' response "unconvincing," and said that Watt "must be ordered to enforce the laws he was appointed to execute."