Proposals to relax or change federal rules for ventilating underground mines have drawn angry and emotional opposition from miners. And the suggestions do raise questions.

The last of six public hearings was held this week in West Virginia by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Like the other hearings, including one in Grand Junction, Colo. that drew many Utahns, it was heavily attended by members of the United Mine Workers union.The miners, while perhaps being too unruly at the meetings, appear to have legitimate concerns about the safety changes. Underground mining is still a dangerous business - as the Wilberg mine disaster showed - and it is the miners who must enter the bowels of the earth.

Changes being considered by MSHA include elimination of the 20-minute checks for the presence of methane gas; not requiring evacuation of miners every time ventilation fans break down; scrapping a rule requiring air to be drawn to the face of the mine; and allowing a higher concentration of methane gas.

While changing those rules might make mine operations more efficient without creating greater danger to miners, that's not at all certain. Besides, the fear of the miners ought to be taken into account; it's their lives that are on the line.

More stringent mine safety rules were adopted in 1969 as part of the Coal Mine Safety Act. That law was passed after explosions and fires ripped through a West Virginia mine, killing 78 workers. Since the law was adopted, accidents have fallen dramatically.

Given the dangerous nature of underground mining, the MSHA ought to back away from the proposed rule changes. If the government must err, let it be on the side of too much mine safety rather than too little.