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CLEVELAND-The Cleveland office of a San Francisco-based architectural firm has turned down a lucrative contract to help choose a site for a controversial low-level radioactive waste dump, citing potential liability issues that could arise from its work.

URS Greiner Inc. walked away from the $936,000 contract with the Ohio Low-Level Radioactive Waste Facility Development Authority because it was unable to negotiate language that would have shielded the architectural firm from lawsuits by communities identified as possible dump sites.

"It's not every day that you walk away from a contract of that size," said William Laubscher, managing principal of URS Greiner's Cleveland office.

"But besides our architectural and design interests, we also have to be a business, and the risk of liability was just too large," he said.

URS Greiner won the bid April 11 to do exclusionary screening of potential sites for a low-level radioactive waste dump, which would accept an estimated 2.25 million cubic feet of the waste from Ohio and five other states in the next 20 years.

A spokeswoman for the waste authority would not comment on the liability aspects of the exclusionary contract. She said the authority may need to meet in advance of its regular June meeting to decide how to proceed so as not to delay the screening process further.

The low-level radioactive waste authority, a quasi-independent wing of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, is charged with finding a dump site for the waste by June 2000. The waste stream comprises largely clothing, tools, medical isotopes and other low- to mid-range radioactive materials from nuclear power plants, hospitals and research labs.

Ms. Herby said the state hopes to have the facility functioning by June 2005.

Controversy is nothing new in the effort to site a low-level radioactive waste dump in Ohio.

Under provisions of federal laws passed in 1980 and 1985, states are given the responsibility for building protected sites for waste generated within their borders, and for protecting those wastes for up to 100 years.

Many states-under the gun to find sites to comply with federal mandates-joined together in groups called "compacts" to build one dump site to handle wastes from all the other states in the group.

The state in the compact generating the most low-level waste was selected to host the facility. In 1991, Ohio was designated the host state for wastes from Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. It earned that designation after Michigan dropped out of what's known as the Midwest Compact.

Authorities in Michigan concluded it was impossible to find an appropriate site for the dump. So far, no state in the country has successfully sited or opened a facility for such waste.

Meanwhile, low-level radioactive waste generators and environmentalists alike warn that the wastes continue to pile up at the power plants and other generation sites.

One existing national low-level waste site, in Barnwell, S.C., is scheduled to close in 1999.