Since J. Steven Griles, a former official with Virginia's strip mining reclamation office, came to Washington in 1981 to help run the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining, he has been the center of controversy.

Appointed to administer the federal strip mining program, which Virginia, under his guidance, challenged in a lawsuit, Griles began a reorganization that his critics said was an attempt to gut the program.

The storm continued yesterday as Griles, 37, faced sharp questioning by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) during Senate hearings on Griles' nomination to be assistant secretary of Interior for land and minerals management.

In the new position, Griles would be in charge of not only strip mining laws, but also federal land management and mineral and petroleum resource development. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is expected to vote on the nomination next week.

Pointing to personnel cutbacks, reorganization and relaxation of regulations that occurred during Griles' controversial tenure at the Office of Surface Mining, Metzenbaum said he was strongly opposed to promoting him to a more influential post.

"Why do you want this job? You don't seem to believe in this law," said Metzenbaum. "Why don't you go do something else?"

Metzenbaum's criticism prompted equally harsh words from Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.), who said Metzenbaum's approach "demeans the Senate." Confirmation hearings, he said, are becoming "a rather degrading process," more bent "on character assassination" than on gathering information.

Metzenbaum responded that senators have a responsibility to ask about past failures if they believe nominees have failed at their jobs.

Griles, who calmly watched the heated exchange between the two senators, later responded: "I think the law is important. I will ensure that the act is actively enforced." He also said he had learned much in his four years at the Interior Department, particularly the importance of listening to all groups.

"Consensus is one of my primary goals and I will direct my efforts to that end," he said.

Louise Dunlap, president of the Environmental Policy Institute, said Griles has told environmentalists he is committed to making the program work and acknowledges that there are problems that need to be worked out.

"As assistant secretary he will have to spend a significant amount of time cleaning up the mess he made as deputy of OSM," said Dunlap. "If he's staying up until midnight to solve this, he has only himself to blame."

Some environmentalists say Griles' current conciliatory tone contrasts sharply with his approach when he came to Washington from Virginia in 1981. Back then, they say, he was a hard-charging, dedicated man with a mission: to change the federal strip mining office, which he saw as an operation that lacked any understanding of the mining industry.

Griles played a major role in Virginia's legal challenge to federal strip mining policy. When he joined Interior in 1981, the Virginia challenge was still in the courts. He was thus in the position of administering a program he was trying to dismantle in the courts. During his two years as deputy at OSM, and subsequent two years as a deputy assistant secretary at Interior, he was seen as a skillful bureaucrat. State coal mining officials and the Reagan administration praised him.

But critics said the OSM program was in worse shape than ever. A House Government Operations subcommittee issued a report during the summer that concluded that unless improvements were made, the program should be transferred to another agency. The report said about $200 million in fines had not been collected and the OSM routinely failed to enforce regulations and stop illegal mining practices.