The fjord region diol-epoxide metabolites of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons display stronger tumorigenic activities in rodent studies than comparable bay region diol-epoxides, but the molecular basis for this difference between fjord and bay region derivatives is not understood. Here we tested whether the variable effects of these genotoxic metabolites of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons may result from different DNA repair reactions. In particular, we compared the repairability of DNA adducts formed by bay region benzo[a]pyrene (B[a]P) diol-epoxides and the structurally similar but significantly more tumorigenic fjord region diol-epoxide metabolites of benzo[c]phenanthrene (B[c]Ph). For that purpose, we incorporated both types of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon adducts into known hot spot sites for carcinogen-induced proto-oncogene activation. Synthetic DNA substrates were assembled using a portion of human N-ras or H-ras that includes codon 61, and stereospecific B[a]P or B[c]Ph adducts were synthesized on adenine N6 at the second position of these two ras codon 61 sequences. DNA repair was determined by incubating the site-directed substrates in human cell extracts, followed by electrophoretic visualization of radiolabeled oligonucleotide excision products. These cell-free assays showed that all tested bay region B[a]P-N6-dA adducts are removed by the human nucleotide excision repair system, although excision efficiency varied with the particular stereochemical configuration of each B[a]P residue. In contrast, all fjord region B[c]Ph-N6-dA adducts located in the identical sequence context and with exactly the same stereochemical properties as the corresponding B[a]P lesions were refractory to the nucleotide excision repair process. These findings indicate that the exceptional tumorigenic potency of B[c]Ph or related fjord region diol-epoxides may be attributed, at least in part, to slow repair of the stable base adducts deriving from the reaction of these compounds with DNA.