CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislation pending in Congress would impose a fee on coal companies that engage in mountaintop removal to fund a broad government study of the practice's effects on the health of coalfield residents.Supporters said Tuesday that this approach, contained in the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act, provides an alternative to a $15 million industry-funded project that critics worry can too easily be influenced by mining companies.The one-time fee on mine operators would pay for research to be conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in consultation with other federal agencies.The industry funding mechanism is a little-noticed part of the legislation, which aims to block new mountaintop removal permits until further studies can prove the practice is safe.Fayette County resident Bob Kincaid, a co-founder of a campaign promoting the bill, said the arrangement would provide a level of "independence" and eliminate concerns "that the science has somehow been bought and paid for and influenced that way."Kincaid joined with other activists from the coalfields and Washington for Tuesday's release of a report from the Center for Health, Environment and Justice reviewing existing studies about mountaintop removal and public health. The center, founded by well-known activist Louis Gibbs, also had a group of independent scientists and physicians -- dubbed the National Commission on the Health Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Mining -- examine its review of the science.Over the last five years, West Virginia University's Michael Hendryx and other researchers have published a series of peer-reviewed studies examining possible links between mountaintop removal and various illnesses.The work has linked health and coal-mining data to show, among other things, that residents living near mountaintop-removal mines face a greater risk of cancer, birth defects, and premature deaths. The studies tried to account for other potential risk factors and were careful not to specifically say that mining causes the health problems. More recently, Hendryx and other researchers have been expanding their work to look at actual pollution exposure to try to pinpoint any causal relationships.But the center's new report, and the independent review of it, said that enough evidence already exists to take precautions, such as a moratorium on new mountaintop removal permits until a more thorough study is done."Preventative action in the face of uncertainty is warranted," the report said.The report said that coal companies "have a responsibility" to fund research on the health and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, but study author Stephen Lester, the center's science director, said such research must be set up with a "firewall" between scientists and funding companies."The commission is very concerned that industry-funded research could be influenced by that industry," Lester said. "This particular research ... would have to be completely independent and be something that the community would be comfortable with."The studies by Hendryx and others have come under fire from other researchers whose work is being funded by the National Mining Association and by the industry-funded Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science, or ARIES.Michael Karmis, a Virginia Tech researcher who is coordinating ARIES, has said that coal companies that funded the project "have no direct input on the development of studies or the reporting of results." But industry officials have said that they were allowed to help draw up the list of initial research questions that ARIES studies would try to answer.Hendryx, who attended a congressional briefing on the moratorium legislation, said during that briefing that the ARIES studies he has seen were "really poorly done" and "laughably bad.""This research is bought and paid for," Hendryx said.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.