BECKY BOHRERJUNEAU, Alaska (AP) â¿¿ A panel convened Tuesday to begin evaluating the science behind a federal study that found large-scale mining near the headwaters of Alaska's Bristol Bay could hurt the productivity and sustainability of one of the world's premier salmon fisheries. The watershed assessment was conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in response to concerns about development of a massive large copper-and-gold prospect in the Bristol Bay region. The draft report was released in May, with a final report that could affect permitting decisions for the proposed Pebble Mine perhaps coming by the end of the year, after the scientific peer review panel weighs in and public comments are analyzed. EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran said the focus, at this point in the process, is on "getting the science right." The review panel, selected by EPA contractor Versar from a list of publicly nominated candidates and those Versar found on its own, is intended to act as a cross-check on the science used by EPA. The panel's findings are expected to be published this fall, and used by EPA to help identify areas of concern that might need more attention or additional analysis. The panel opened three days of meetings in Anchorage on Tuesday, with the first day reserved for public comment focused on specific topics. Critics of the EPA draft , including officials with the group behind the mine project, the Pebble Limited Partnership, called the study rushed, flawed and based on a theoretical mine project the likes of which would never be permitted in the U.S. Supporters of the EPA's effort see it as a step toward protecting the region against harmful mining activity. John Shively, Pebble CEO, said EPA based its study on a "fantasy" mine, with no basis in reality. McLerran, talking to reporters, dismissed that claim.