Look carefully at the growing Lemon Creek landfill, and you'll see up to 22 small flames just above the plateaus of garbage and dirt.
The flames aren't fed by the trash itself, but by the offensive fumes that sometimes waft away from the 34-acre landfill at 5600 Tonsgard Court that serves Juneau.
Federal environmental regulations demand that landfill emissions are kept to a minimum and prescribe installing wells that collect and burn off the flammable fumes as one clean way to keep them in check.
Eric Vance, Waste Management's district manager who oversees the landfill, said complaints about the smell led him to double the number of wells in place in October from 11 to 22.
Above ground, the wells look like post-apocalyptic street lamps. Beneath ground, perforated piping lets the fumes collect passively and rise up as the garbage decomposes. An igniter powered by solar panels acts like a pilot light keeping what is essentially natural gas burning day and night. It burns clean and odorless.
Other landfills have gone a step further and generated electricity or processed fuel with the gas, but Vance said the volume and quality at Lemon Creek aren't high enough to warrant those options.
Even with the extra wells, fighting the funk is a difficult task because the human nose's threshold for detecting the malodorous matter is about 8 parts per billion, Vance said. The next step will be to improve the wells so that they actively suck the gases from the buried garbage, instead of collecting it passively, Vance said.
The jury judging if the extra wells have made a difference seems split. Some say the stink is intermittent and fickle about where and when it strikes, probably a function of variable weather conditions.
"When it's clear, it's worse," said Ron Shaw, a resident of the neighboring Creekside Trailer Park. "I haven't noticed it lately."
However, Karin Massey said she still smells it four times out of the five days a week she commutes past it.
"It has not made one difference," Massey said.