The giant wounds on the landscape left by dozens of opencast coal mines across Scotland may never be healed under plans being considered by Scottish ministers.

Community and environment groups say the Scottish Government is preparing to let coal companies break promises to restore defunct mines, in order to help the deeply troubled industry.

Scottish Coal said last month that because of financial difficulties it was axeing 450 of its 758 workforce, and closing four of its nine opencast pits. ATH Resources, which operating five mines in Scotland, went into administration in December.

The Scottish Government told the Sunday Herald its industry deregulation guru, Professor Russel Griggs, was leading a working group "to explore issues affecting the Scottish coal industry". Among issues under review was "the restoration of future opencast coal sites".

Griggs, who chairs the Scottish Government's Regulatory Review Group, has been asked by Energy Minister Fergus Ewing to brief MSPs on progress. The briefing is to take place at Holyrood on Wednesday.

Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, pointed out that communities affected by opencast mining had been assured that the huge holes, heaps and dirt tracks would be cleaned up.

Dixon said that promises were "being widely broken" and accused the Government of "working to let the industry off the hook".

He added: "These companies have made large profits at the expense of the environment and local businesses. Instead of trying to prop up an ailing industry, the Government needs to guarantee that overdue restoration work will get underway.

"The Scottish Government urgently needs to reassure communities and planning authorities that no developer will ever be allowed to simply walk away from their obligations to clean up after themselves."

Campaign group Coal Action Scotland (CAS) has evidence that the restoration of at least a dozen old opencast mines in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Midlothian has already been delayed or abandoned. The restoration of the Chalmerston mine in East Ayrshire, where production ended in 1998, is now 14 years overdue, the group says.

Oliver Munion of CAS accused the Government and industry of holding talks "behind closed doors" without consulting those most affected. "Our fear is that communities across Scotland are being sold out by the Scottish Government which seems to be preparing to allow the industry to break the promises it made to clean up the enormous mess it has made," he said.

Rural communities were being sold out to protect private industry, he claimed. "Many Scottish Coal sites are woefully behind in their restoration, with some lying unrestored for 10 years or more. Why should they be given support to open new mines when they've broken so many promises already?"

Labour's shadow environment minister, Claudia Beamish MSP, said communities had a right to expect opencast mines to be restored.

"We need to be wary of accepting a situation where this obligation is relaxed and scaled back," she said. "While we will listen to Professor Griggs' work on the broad issues affecting the coal industry, we are clear that this work must not come at the expense of the environmental concerns of communities affected."

The Scottish Government said the working group headed up by Griggs involved stakeholders across the coal industry.

"This Government is doing all it can to protect Scotland's coal industry, and that includes looking at the best ways of sustaining opencast coal sites," said a Government spokeswoman.

"We are working with local authorities, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, landowners and coal operators to ensure the best restoration outcome of legacy sites for the communities directly and indirectly involved."

Scottish Coal confirmed it was working with the Government to address challenges facing the industry. "We greatly appreciate the support that has been offered in dealing with these challenges," said a spokesman. "And we are doing all we can to ensure that a sustainable mining industry is preserved."