With a home perched on a clear northern lake and a view of the Yukon's mountains, Theo Stad should be breathing some of the cleanest air on earth.

But at least once a week, his view is best appreciated from inside. That's when his small community's household waste - everything from kitchen refuse to electronic components - is burned at the nearby dump.

"The smell is putrid," he says. "It's very distinguishable. I always think, 'They're burning at the dump again."'

The Yukon government is asking the territory's environmental regulator to grant permits that would allow 19 unsupervised dumps and burn pits to operate for another three years. Smaller communities depend on the pits for solid waste disposal.

But local environmentalists say the territory isn't moving fast enough to come up with something better. They want the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board, which will hear the government's permit application on Jan. 19, to force the government to phase out the pits over the next three years.

"(The dumps) are pretty bad," says Anne Middler of the Yukon Conservation Society.

These 19 dumping grounds are the end point for construction debris, waste oil, batteries, home electronics, treated wood, appliances, dirty diapers and other domestic waste. Although the dumps have separate areas for material that shouldn't be burned, the facilities are unsupervised and left open 24 hours a day.

"Anyone can dump anything there at any time and set it alight," says Middler.

"You don't know who's lighting it or who's dumping what."

In a submission to the board, the Ta'an Kwach'an First Nation says the fires sometimes smoulder for days.

"Household waste, automobiles, rotting animal carcasses and other prohibited substances have been observed burning," says the First Nation.

It is not just a question of bad smells. Incomplete combustion releases soot and metals as well as carcinogens, including furans and dioxins that waft into the air or seep into groundwater.

Communities near the dumps are exposed to these toxic smoke plumes when the wind is right.

"There definitely are communities that are being smoked out, inundated with the smoke when the garbage is burning," says Middler.

The government's environmental impact assessments acknowledge "moderate" impacts on both air and groundwater quality from the dumps.

About 5,000 people live in the affected communities. Carcross - near Stad's home - and Tagish are two of the worst-affected communities.

Kriss Sarson of the Yukon's Department of Community Services says the government recognizes the dumps aren't the best solution and has launched a study of its solid-waste disposal system.

"It's been historical practice across the North," he says.

"We're trying to get an understanding of what is viable for the Yukon."

The small population in the territory - about 33,000 - and vast distances make logistics difficult, he says.

"The government is acutely aware of the concerns of the public," says Sarson.

Middler said the conservation society is looking for more controls on the dump sites, as well as a greater emphasis on recycling and salvage. She also says the territory should build more transfer stations so fewer dumps would be needed.

"Each community will have its own ideas," she says.

Sarson acknowledges the current dumps are mostly an outgrowth of the Yukon's frontier days and their time has probably past.

"Society's becoming aware of what some of these actions mean and their implications," he said. "There's always that push to make sure we're doing the best that we can."

For Stad, those changes can't come soon enough.

"Yesterday morning, they lit the dump. I can't imagine anyone who leaves their heaters on when they drive by it, because you get that smell in your car and it's going to be with you.

"The waste management methods being used at the Carcross dump - they're archaic."

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