The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) investigated the natural attenuation of subsurface petroleum hydrocarbons leaked over an unknown number of years from an oil pipeline under the Enbridge Energy Limited Partnership South Cass Lake Pumping Station, in Cass Lake, Minnesota. Three weeks of field work conducted between May 2007 and July 2008 delineated a dissolved plume of aromatic hydrocarbons and characterized the biodegradation processes of the petroleum. Field activities included installing monitoring wells, collecting sediment cores, sampling water from wells, and measuring water-table elevations. Geochemical measurements included concentrations of constituents in both spilled and pipeline oil, dissolved alkylbenzenes and redox constituents, sediment bioavailable iron, and aquifer microbial populations. Groundwater in this area flows east-southeast at approximately 26 meters per year. Results from the oil analyses indicate a high degree of biodegradation, characterized by nearly complete absence of n-alkanes. Cass Lake oil samples were more degraded than two oil samples collected in 2008 from the similarly contaminated USGS Bemidji, Minnesota, research site 40 kilometers away. Based on 19 ratios developed for comparing oil sources, the conclusion is that the oils at the two sites appear to be from the same hydrocarbon source.
In the Cass Lake groundwater plume, benzene concentrations decrease by three orders of magnitude within 150 meters (m) downgradient from the oil body floating on the water table (between well MW-10 and USGS-4 well nest). The depths of the highest benzene concentrations increase with distance downgradient from the oil, a condition typical of plumes in shallow, unconfined aquifers. Background groundwater, which is nearly saturated with oxygen, becomes almost entirely anaerobic in the plume. As at the Bemidji site, the most important biodegradation processes are anaerobic and dominated by iron reduction. The similarity between the Cass Lake and Bemidji benzene degradation rates, redox conditions, and aquifer material all support a hypothesis that the Cass Lake plume, like the Bemidji plume, is decades old.
As concentrations of alkylbenzenes in the oil decrease over time, the benzene concentrations in the groundwater plume will also decrease and the plume is expected to shrink. The Fox Creek wetland, about 250 m south of the Cass Lake site, is the nearest receptor to the south.