Ah, Antarctica. The name calls to mind ice mountains and emperor penguins, a place pristine and apart from man. But according to environmentalists, the frozen continent is being marred by air pollution and tourist ships and threatened by mining.

In particular, environmentalists say the icy continent is being damaged by the very scientists who come to unlock its mysteries, who burn their garbage in pits and dump their junk in a landfill by the sea.

The environmentalists want the landfills closed and pit-burning stopped. They want U.S. environmental regulations to apply to American operations on the ice. And so the Environmental Defense Fund last week announced it was going to sue the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency that oversees research activities in Antarctica.

"NSF has consistently made promises it failed to keep," said Bruce Manheim, an attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund. "We believe the only way to get an enforceable deadline to stop the burning and close the landfill is to seek legal action."

Officials at NSF say they are working as fast as they can to clean up operations, but the logistical nightmare of working in Antarctica poses special risks and problems. "I think we have moved extremely rapidly," said Jack Talmadge of the NSF polar office. "There is a sense of unrealistic impatience."

The legal wrangling comes at a time when the health and well-being of the South Pole is at the center of a growing international debate over how best to preserve and protect the unique Antarctic environment. Should the whole continent be declared a world park? Should mining on the continent be banned forever, or would the Antarctic be better protected if mining were not forbidden outright, but subjected to rigorous -- some would say almost prohibitive -- control?

Such negotations are crucial because Antarctica, in essence, is a continent without a government in charge of it. No nation owns the frozen landmass or has exclusive rights to its minerals or fisheries. By treaty agreement, the nations operating on the ice have pledged themselves to the "peaceful use" of Antarctica.

The peaceful use is often scientific. The continent serves as a home-away-from-home from December through February for researchers and technicians from dozens of countries who descend on the ice in the austral summer to study atmospheric chemistry, past climate and life in and around the Southern Ocean, one of the most productive seas in the world.

Unfortunately, research creates garbage. At the largest and oldest of the American sites, McMurdo Station, the summer population can top 1,200. Over the years, the small city created a lot of refuse. Until now, the solution at McMurdo has been to dump it, burn it, recycle it or haul it back to the United States.

Talmadge pointed out that the American bases in Antarctica were established in the pioneering days of the early 1960s, at time when survival on the ice was a more immediate concern than waste disposal. But Congress, disturbed by reports of pollution in Antarctica and prodded by NSF, last year funded a five-year $30 million program to clean up the Antarctic environment.

NSF managers say the cleanup and retro-fitting will take time, given the difficult logistics, the indescribeable cold and the endless night of the austral winter. Talmadge said the agency has not decided whether it will ship trash off the ice or burn some of it in incinerators.

Regardless of its decision, NSF lawyers say they don't want U.S. environmental regulations to apply to the agency in Antarctica. Lawrence Rudolph, deputy general counsel at NSF, said U.S. regulations could burden the agency with excessive paperwork and unrealistic requirements more suited to the temperate regions than a polar habitat that is mostly dark for half the year.