Environmental Concerns

Our Project and the Enviromnent

One of the primary concerns of health and environmental organizations is the contamination of fresh water with dangerous toxins including naphthalene and arsenic as a direct by-product of bitumen extraction. Water used in the process of extracting bitumen and the waste sand, solvents, and other leftovers, collectively known as “tailings”, are stored and left to settle in tailings ponds adjacent to mining operations. Water from these ponds is recycled back, causing greater accumulation of arsenic and naphthalene which are naturally drawn into the water during bitumen processing.

To prevent seepage into the groundwater, the tailings ponds contain groundwater monitoring facilities and containment dykes to recapture and recycle seepage. Unfortunately, these preventative measures are not failsafe. For instance, under escalating pressure from the people and government, the oil sands industry recently launched a new Lower Athabasca Water Quality Monitoring Program in 2011, increasing the frequency of water quality measurements to better assess the effect of oil sands activities.

Clearly, the risk of Canadian watershed contamination remains a pressing issue, and there exists an urgent demand for efficient detection methods of pollutants from tailings ponds.

This year, the Cornell iGEM team strives to meet that growing need.


1. Tenenbaum, David J. “Oil Sands Development: A Health Risk Worth Taking?” (2009). Environmental Health Persepctives. 117(4): A150-156.

2. Weinhoki, Bob. “Alberta’s Oil Sands- Hard Evidence, Missing Data, New Promises.” (2011). Environmental Health Perspectives. 119(3): A126-131.