Secretary of State Ken Hechler, a longtime opponent of strip mining, is marshaling his troops once again as grass-roots pressure builds against the practice known as mountaintop removal.Hechler's former congressional staff and other activists will focus on mountaintop removal during a reunion next month at the Coolfont Resort in Morgan County. Hechler represented Southern West Virginia's former 4th Congressional District from 1959 to 1977; the staff reunion is an annual event."When we were fighting for coal mine health and safety in 1969, it was grass-roots pressure and only grass-roots pressure that caused Congress to act so quickly," Hechler said."Now the pressure is building again," he said.As critics have become more vocal, state and federal regulators have taken a step back from the practice, in which coal companies remove millions of cubic yards of spoil to expose coal seams beneath, then dispose of the waste in nearby streams and valleys.It differs from other strip-mine techniques in that mine operators are given an exemption from the requirement that land be returned to its "approximate original contour" when mining is complete. Often, steep mountains are replaced with rolling grasslands.The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is required to issue a permit for any industrial plan that calls for permanent changes in a stream. But last week, the agency volunteered to impose a 60-day moratorium on such permits while it tries to negotiate a settlement of a lawsuit filed by 10 coalfield residents and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.The previous week, the federal Environmental Protection Agency directed the state Division of Environmental Protection to postpone issuing a water pollution permit to Hobet Mining Inc., for the largest strip mine in the state's history at Blair, Logan County.EPA said Hobet must look for ways to reduce or avoid the use of valley fills and to assure there is adequate mitigation for any loss of water resources.The same week, Gov. Cecil Underwood directed the DEP to ignore a law he approved earlier in the year that relaxed the rules under which coal operators must compensate the state for such stream losses.Underwood signed the bill last spring in spite of objections from the staff of the DEP and the EPA.Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said Hechler and other strip-mine opponents "are trying to build this issue up as much as they can.""Things are substantially different than they were 25 years ago," before the federal government began to regulate strip mining, Raney said."There are a lot of allegations floating around out there, many of which are not factual," Raney said. "There have been some very real problems, and we have successful addressed those."The environment is much improved and operators are complying with lots more regulations," he said.