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Geotechnical Characterization of

Clearwater Shales for Design

Pinheiro, M., Sobkowicz, J., Boswell, J., Abraha, D., Woytiuk, M.
Thurber Engineering Ltd., Calgary, AB, Canada

Clearwater Formation shales are heavily overconsolidated clay- and silt-shales encountered within the footprint of several
oil sands mines located in northeastern Alberta, Canada. Their micro- and macro-structures are often associated with very
low shear strengths as demonstrated in this paper by the results of several direct shear tests carried out on Clearwater
shale samples from the Joslyn North lease, located north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. An important structural feature of
these weak rocks is the occurrence of slickensides, i.e. smoothly polished surfaces caused by the frictional movement
along the sides of a fault plane and usually linked with low shear resistance. Identifying these structural discontinuities in
the field is critical for the design of earthen structures founded on these weak materials. At the Joslyn North lease,
slickenside occurrences were identified sparsely throughout the site; however, nearly 98% of the occurrences were
observed in augered test holes. A geotechnical test pit program was implemented in the winter of 2014 to characterize
more accurately the nature of these defects. No evidence of distinct shear zones or slickensides was found, despite their
description in adjacent boreholes, confirming that the slickensides previously described in augered test holes were in fact

Les shales de la formation de Clearwater sont des shales dargile et de silt fortement consolids rencontrs dans
lempreinte de nombreux sites dexploitation ptrolire et gazire du nord-est de lAlberta, au Canada. Leurs micro/macro-
structures sont souvent associes des rsistances au cisaillement trs faibles, tel quil le sera dmontr dans cet article
par les rsultats de nombreux essais de cisaillement effectus sur des chantillons de shale du Clearwater provenant de
la concession ptrolire de Joslyn North, situe au nord de Fort McMurray en Alberta. Un aspect important de ces roches
de faible rsistance est lapparition de surfaces polies par les mouvements de friction le long des plans de faille et
normalement associes une faible rsistance au cisaillement. Lidentification de ces discontinuits structurelles sur le
terrain est cruciale dans la conception de structures en terre fondes sur ces matriaux de faible rsistance. Sur la
concession de Joslyn North, quelques surfaces polies ont t identifies travers le site. Toutefois, 98% dentre elles ont
t retrouves dans des trous de forage. Un programme gotechnique de trous dessais a donc t mis en place durant
lhiver 2014 afin de caractriser de faon plus prcise la nature de ces dfauts. Aucune vidence de zones de cisaillement
distinctes ou de miroirs de faille na t trouve, en dpit de leur description dans les trous de forage adjacents, confirmant
que ces surfaces polies taient en fait induites par le forage.

1 INTRODUCTION to the design was the geotechnical characterization of the

Clearwater marine deposits, which are encountered on
Over the past five years, an open pit oil sands mine and approximately two thirds of the lease, and cover most of the
bitumen extraction plant were being planned at the Joslyn footprint of the out-of-pit structures, as shown in Figure 1
North lease, located immediately west of the Athabasca (and later shown in Figure 5 in more detail). These deposits
River, about 70 km north of the town of Fort McMurray, consist of heavily over-consolidated clay- and silt-shales,
Alberta, Canada (see highlighted region in red in Figure 1). as well as siltstones and sandstone. The shale structure in
Part of this project comprised the planning and design of the oil sands area has often been associated with very low
three major out-of-pit geotechnical structures, namely, a shear strengths either measured in laboratory or estimated
sand beaching area and a dedicated disposal area from numerical analysis of foundation movements of pit
designed to contain tailings and recycled water, and a walls, tailings dams and other earthen structures (Alencar
dump area designed for the disposal of mine waste. Typical et al., 1994; El-Ramly et al., 2003; Moore et al., 2006;
mine waste included overburden, interburden and plant Martens and Charron, 2007; McRoberts et al., 2008;
rejected material not suitable or not required for the Pinheiro et al., 2013; Kostaschuk et al., 2014). This paper
construction of mine infrastructure. summarizes the results from over one-hundred drained
The authors of this paper were responsible for the direct shear tests carried out on shale samples from the
conceptual and basic engineering designs of these Joslyn North site. Very low shear strengths were confirmed
geotechnical structures, which were planned to be seated for the Clearwater shales.
on varying thicknesses of Holocene and Pleistocene An important structural feature of these weak rocks is
sediments, overlying the Clearwater Formation and the occurrence of slickensides, that is, smoothly polished
McMurray Formation marine deposits. Of particular interest surfaces caused by the frictional movement along the sides
of a fault plane. Slickensides are closely associated with that geologists often work with extremely weathered shales
very low shear strengths. Identifying and characterizing at outcrops or thin sections in the lab, while geotechnical
these structural discontinuities in the field was critical to the experts work on relatively shallow depth constructions, and
design of the out-of-pit geotechnical structures. At Joslyn have in mind engineering aspects; in the petroleum
North, slickensides were identified sparsely throughout the industry, shale is encountered at different depths, where
site; however, nearly 98% of the occurrences were weathering may not exist, and partial cementation has
observed in augered test holes. It was suspected that the increased its strength. In this paper, shales will be regarded
presence of these structural discontinuities in auger as fine-grained, indurated, detrital sedimentary rocks
cuttings were due to drill-induced effects. In view of this formed by the consolidation of beds of clay and silt, and
uncertainty and given the impact slickensides might have characterized by a finely stratified structure and/or fissility
on parameter selection and associated design, a that is roughly parallel to bedding.
geotechnical test pit program was developed to determine The Clearwater Formation is a laterally continuous unit
more accurately the existence and nature of these defects of Early Cretaceous age encountered in the Western
within the Clearwater shales. This paper highlights the Canada Sedimentary Basin in northeastern Alberta (Hayes
main findings of the field program, which was undertaken et al., 1994). The Wabiskaw Member forms the base of the
in the winter of 2014, and consisted of several test pits Clearwater Formation, and overlies the Cretaceous-aged
excavated to depths varying up to 6.6 m below existing McMurray Formation.
grade. The Clearwater consists mostly of shales with a minor
component of interbedded siltstone and sandstone. The
units of its Wabiskaw Member consist largely of glauconitic
sandstones with interbeds of black fissile shale (Haug et
al., 2014). The Clearwater was buried under approximately
1000 m of sediment prior to uplift and erosion of much of
the overlying materials. During Pleistocene glaciations, it
was covered in more than 2500 m of ice (Dusseault, 1977).
As a consequence, the Clearwater shales are in a heavily
overconsolidated state, with high locked-in horizontal
stresses (Martens and Charron, 2006).
The Clearwater strata has been subdivided into a
number of units or facies based on observable attributes
such as composition, appearance and deposition history. A
few facies classification have been proposed in the oil
sands, with different symbols having been assigned to the
same subunit. Table 1 presents the facies nomenclature
employed at Joslyn North. The facies symbols were
ordered from youngest (Kc3) to oldest (Kcw1) in this table.
The equivalent symbols used by Canadian Natural (CNQ)
and Syncrude Canada Ltd. (SCL) are also shown in
Table 1 for comparison purposes. The nomenclature
employed at Joslyn North is used throughout this paper.
At Joslyn North, the Clearwater Formation and its
Wabiskaw Member are present on approximately two thirds
of the lease area, only having been eroded on the eastern
part and along the Athabasca River. The water content of
its shales range from as low as 5% (for the higher silt
Figure 1. Major oil sands lease areas overlaid on a bedrock
content shales) to over 50% in some rare instances. The
subcrop map (Prior et al., 2013) and a recent satellite
average water content is 22%. The average bulk unit
photo (Google Earth, 2016). Compare the location of
weight is 21 kN/m3, with low density units having bulk unit
the Joslyn North lease (highlighted in red) relative to the
weight as low as 18 kN/m3. Average plastic and liquid limits
Town of Fort McMurray identified at the bottom-center
are around 25% and 80%, with upper bound values above
of the figure.
90% and 250%, respectively.
Figure 2 plots the frequency distribution of liquid limit for
the Clearwater subunits encountered in the Joslyn North
lease. The number on top of each bar represents the
number of observations (i.e., the number of liquid limit
Numerous terminologies have been used when referring to
tests), while the number in parenthesis beside the facies
shales, for example, clay, claystone, siltstone, mudrock,
symbol represents the total number of observations for that
argillaceous material, as well as descriptive words such as
facies. This figure gives a valuable account of the variability
hard soil, weak rock or soft rock. Farrokhrouz and Asef
in liquid limit values observed in the Clearwater. It also
(2013) argued that such diverse nomenclature stems from
reveals the existence of highly plasticity shales (e.g. Kc1
the various perspectives and particular interests that
and Kcw2) that are commonly associated with low densities
geologists, geotechnical engineers and petroleum
and low shear strengths.
engineers have when toiling with shales. They pointed out
Figure 3 compares the liquid limit and plasticity index of
the Clearwater Formation shales with several other shales
in western Canada. The rectangular boundaries in this
figure delimit the observed plasticity range for each shale,
as presented by Wong (1994), while the solid dots are
measured plasticity values for the Clearwater at Joslyn
North. The Clearwater shales encompass a wide range of
plasticity behaviour, as already demonstrated in Figure 2.
This echoes from the significant variability in depositional
setting, compaction history and composition of shales. It is
very likely that the other shales in Figure 3 would reveal a
wider range of plasticity behaviour than reported by Wong
The average clay content (particle size < 2 m) is about
54%, with kaolinite and illite being the most predominant
clay minerals, with lesser amounts of chlorite, quartz and
smectite, in this order.

Table 1. Clearwater facies symbol and facies description

adopted at Joslyn North, and equivalent nomenclature
adopted by CNQ and SCL.

Facies Symbol
Geological Description
Joslyn CNQ SCL
Kc3 Kce-745 Kce + Greyish-black shale with local low-
+ Kcd- Kcd angle, parallel bedded to cross-
740 bedded, glauconitic sandy silt;
lower contact marked by a dual Figure 2. Frequency distribution of liquid limit for each
indurated bed and bound by a Clearwater facies.
black, fissile, low-density clay cap.
Kc2 Kcc-730, Kcc Dark grey shale with moderate to
725,720, (1 to 6) common silt lenses; thin beds of
710 + Kcb1 low-density clay; thin, locally
indurated beds; lower contact may
be marked by a thin interval of
glauconitic shale.
Kc1 Kcb-700 Kcb2 Black, fissile, low-density clay shale
with rare to moderate silt laminae/
lenses; upper contact commonly
marked by an indurated bed.
Kcw3 Kcb-650 Kcb3 Churned/bioturbated glauconitic
silty sand and dark grey mud
laminae; sharp contact with the
overlying low-density clay; lower
contact marked by induration.
Kcw2 Kca Kca Dark grey silty clay with minor
glauconitic silt laminae/lenses and
rare burrows; locally very dark
grey/black fissile clay.
Kcw1 Kcw Kcw Thinly laminated to churned, Figure 3. Plasticity indexes of several shale formations in
medium to dark grey clay with western Canada, including the Clearwater Formation.
moderate to common glauconitic Atterberg limit data (Liquid Limit and Plasticity Index)
silt and sand lenses/burrows. from Joslyn North added to the original figure modified
Occasional thin indurated beds,
commonly near contacts.
from Wong (1994).

2.1 Shear Strength Characteristics

The micro- and macro-structure of shales often lead to
challenging geotechnical behaviour as demonstrated by Over 250 drained direct shear tests were carried out on soil
the results of several drained direct shear tests discussed and bedrock samples from across the Joslyn North site,
in the next subsection. ranging from shallow glaciolacustrine clays to deeper
McMurray Formation mudstones. Around 130 of these 4) Select the best fit residual strength for the RWC case,
laboratory tests were conducted on Clearwater (including and the best fit residual strength increased by two
the Wabiskaw Member) core samples. The results of these degrees for the MLC scenario. The 2-degree increase
tests were evaluated to determine relevant shear strength is somewhat a judgment call, and takes into account
characteristics of the Clearwater shales and to select large scale rugosity of weak layers, lateral variability in
representative design parameters for stability assessment. weak layer properties, discontinuity of weak layers, and
The state-of-practice for the design of dam and dump lateral variability in the actual field strength of a weak
slopes with moderate consequences of failure, developed layer, for example, as revealed by variability in pre-
in the various oil sands mines in Fort McMurray over the shearing, slickensides.
past 40 years, is to select design parameters and assess
stability based on whether the observational approach can
be applied or not, as follows:

1) When the observational approach can be applied (i.e.,

consequences of failure are fully defined; structures are
well instrumented; construction and facility operation
proceed at a pace that allows slope performance to be
monitored, and monitoring is carried out; mitigative
actions are well defined and can be executed in a timely
manner), then the practice has been, for either during
or end-of-construction case, to apply a target factor of
safety (FS) of 1.3 when using most likely case (MLC)
parameters and a target FS of 1.1 when using
reasonable worst case (RWC) parameters. MLC
parameters are average values, whereas RWC
parameters are typically selected near the lower bound
of observed behaviour. In both cases, the selection of
parameters is based on the experience and judgement
of the design team, and thus may be adjusted
somewhat, with the intent of not being rigidly bound by
statistical treatment of the data.
2) When an observational approach cannot be followed,
then conventional geotechnical practice applies, that is,
reasonably conservative design parameters are
selected and higher factors of safety are used (1.5 for
short-term performance and possibly higher for long-
term performance). Reasonably conservative
parameters are selected based on engineering
judgment they are usually taken 0.5 to 1.0 standard
deviation on the conservative side of the mean, and are
hence more conservative than MLC parameters.

If consequences of failure are low, these criteria might

be relaxed to some extent; if consequences are high, the
factors of safety might be increased and/or monitoring
The results of the direct shear testing program are
summarized in Figure 4, which plots peak and residual
shear stress versus effective normal stress, along with
inferred across bedding and parallel to bedding failure
envelops for both MLC and RWC scenarios. The design
friction angles were selected according with the following

1) Assume no apparent cohesion.

2) Use peak friction angles for across bedding strengths Figure 4. Direct shear test results and selected design
and residual friction angles for parallel to bedding friction angles for the Clearwater facies. Notes: The
strengths. number (in parenthesis) beside Peak and Residual
3) Select the best fit peak strength for the MLC scenario, denotes the number of valid direct shear tests. The
and a value between the lower bound and the best fit number above the solid circles denotes the liquid limit
peak strength for the RWC scenario. of the samples tested.
samples were flooded with distilled water, allowed to
equilibrate, and then sheared. This common practice is
known to affect the response of shales, especially those of
marine origin, which have pore fluid rich in salts. Under
these preparation conditions, the distilled water is drawn
into the specimen during initial loading and possibly after
peak, depending on the shearing process. It follows that the
ingress of distilled water into the soil and subsequently into
the failure plane lead to an artificial reduction in the residual
shear strength (McRoberts et al., 2008). Unfortunately, the
majority of the direct shear tests presented here were
conducted by other consultants at earlier stages of the
project, before our involvement. Little information has been
provided in the lab testing sheets with respect to sample

Table 2. Design friction angles for the Clearwater facies.

Facies Most Likely Case Reasonable Worst Case

Symbol across parallel across parallel
Kc3 30 26 28 24
Kc2 24 13 20 11
Kc1 13 9 11 7
Kcw3 24 12 20 10
Kcw2 21 10 18 8
Kcw1 24 13 20 11

Another important point to note, particular to the Joslyn

North project, is that slickensides were identified sparsely
across the site. However, nearly 98% of these occurrences
were observed in augered test holes; only 2% of them were
actually observed in non-augered holes. It was suggested
that the presence of slickensides in auger cuttings may be
exaggerated by inadequate recognition of drill-induced
effects. In view of the inconclusiveness of these findings
and given the impact slickensides have on the design
assumptions, a test pit program was set up to investigate
further this matter. Some aspects of this geotechnical field
program and the main conclusions resulting from our
assessment of the presence of sheared zones within the
Figure 4. Continued. Clearwater units are described in the following section.

Table 2 lists the across bedding and parallel to 3 GEOTECHNICAL TEST PIT PROGRAM
bedding friction angles selected for design for the MLC
and RWC scenarios. Except for Kc3, which is not quite as A geotechnical test pit program was developed to assess
fine grained as the other Clearwater subunits and also has the presence and nature of structural discontinuities within
a lower liquid limit, all the other subunits exhibit very low the Clearwater units, through examination of the in-situ
residual strengths, with parallel to bedding friction angles stratigraphy, particularly in the top 6 m below ground
as low as 7. Such low values are comparable to those surface. The findings of the test pit campaign would also
reported by other authors (Alencar et al., 1994; Moore et support the development of strength parameters to be used
al., 2006; Martens and Charron, 2007; McRoberts et al., in design.
2008). By comparing the liquid limit values (shown on top The test pit program consisted of ten test pits located
of the circles in Figure 4), one may infer a direct relationship immediately adjacent to existing augered test holes (in
between low shear strength and high plasticity, which in which slickensides had been identified), and within or
turn is associated with clay content and mineralogy. adjacent to the footprint of the planned out-of-pit structures,
The direct shear testing was conducted in accordance as shown in Figure 5. This figure also shows the zero edges
with ASTM D3080. It is very likely that the Clearwater (boundaries) of the Clearwater and Wabiskaw units. Note
that the footprint of the planned out-of-pit structures is smoothly polished, waxy appearance, and is normally
underlain mostly by Clearwater Formation shales. striated in the direction of the shearing movement.
The test pit program was conducted in early February Only small and isolated amounts of centimetre-size,
2014, when temperatures were below -20C. All test pits randomly oriented surfaces were flagged as potentially
were excavated using a backhoe to depths varying from indicative of slickensides. Figures 8 identifies a smooth to
4.1 m to 6.6 m below existing grade. Geotechnical logging slightly rough surface oriented at about 45from horizontal,
was carried out by Thurber personnel soon after the test which was identified in TP5 as a possible occurrence of
pits were opened. Messrs. Sobkowicz, Abraha, Pinheiro slickenside. If it existed, a sheared zone would be expected
and an owner representative mobilized to site to assess the to extend over a length of a few metres to tens of metres,
exposed soils on the open test pit walls. At the time of our as opposed of being located in one or two small, isolated
site visit, the exposed soil on the test pit walls had become spots. Alternatively, less intense shearing could have been
frozen and very hard, making it more challenging to assess indicated by groups of slickensides located in a particular
the presence of structural discontinuities, as shown in soil unit throughout the test pit. Neither of these types of
Figure 6. Whenever possible, a hand pick was used to features was observed in any of the test pits. For this
chop off the outermost frozen layer and re-expose unfrozen reason, it is very likely that these small, polished surfaces
Clearwater shale. Other times, a backhoe was used to were induced by the excavation process and do not
expose larger portions of fresh soils. represent natural structural discontinuities in the
Clearwater deposits.

Figure 6. Jointed appearance and bedding structure of the

Figure 5. Test pit locations, along with footprint of planned
frozen Clearwater shale (Wabiskaw Member) in test pit
geotechnical structures, and zero edges (boundaries)
TP4 (Photo by J. Sobkowicz, 2014).
of the Clearwater and Wabiskaw units. Compare the
test pit locations relative to the Joslyn Creek (top of
figure) and the Ells River (bottom of figure).

Test pits TP1, TP3 and TP8 were not assessed by us

in the field, and will not be discussed here. TP1 was
excavated, logged and immediately backfilled due to
sloughing of Joslyn Creek sediments and trace of water at
the bottom of the excavation. TP3 was also backfilled soon
after being excavated. TP8 location could not be accessed
during the site visit due to tree logging activities in the area.
At test pits TP5, TP6 and TP7, a backhoe was used to
expose larger portions of fresh Clearwater soils. TP2 was
the only test pit excavated while we were on site, allowing
us to assess visually the fresh, exposed Clearwater without
further mechanical intervention.
Undifferentiated Clearwater Formation soils were
identified in the test pits at shallow depths ranging from 2 m Figure 7. Close-up view of an iron stained Clearwater
to 5 m. As mentioned earlier, these marine deposits are shale, detailing the jointed, crumbly appearance and
characterized by a jointed appearance and bedding bedding structure of the freshly exposed Clearwater
structure, as shown in Figures 6 and 7. Visual evidence of shale in test pit TP2 (Photo by J. Sobkowicz, 2014).
slickensides in these deposits is based on the appearance
of their surface the surface of a pre-sheared area has a
shales and to obtain parameters for the planning and
design of three major out-of-pit geotechnical structures at
the Joslyn North lease, north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. An
important aspect of the project was the fact that slickenside
occurrences were identified sparsely throughout the site;
however, most of these occurrences were observed in
augered test holes. In view of this uncertainty and given the
influence slickensides might have on parameter selection
(such as the 2-degree assumption used to obtain best fit
residual friction angle for the MLC scenario) and associated
design, a geotechnical test pit program was implemented
to characterize more precisely the nature of these defects.
Based on visual assessment of the test pit materials, no
evidence was found of distinct shear zones or slickensides,
despite their description in adjacent boreholes. One or two
small, centimetre-scale, polished surfaces were identified
Figure 8. Smooth to slightly rough surface oriented at about in some test pits; however, in the opinion of the authors,
45from horizontal. Possible slickenside occurrence in these were induced by the excavation process and did not
test pit TP5 (Photo by J. Balfour, 2014). represent natural structural discontinuities. It was thus
concluded that the slickensides previously described in
augered test holes were in fact drill-induced. In light of
4 DISCUSSION these outcomes, the 2-degree assumption was also
deemed to be reasonable and possibly even somewhat
The conceptual and basic engineering designs of the out- conservative.
of-pit geotechnical structures were reviewed throughout
the project in a number of senior external review board
meetings. At first, the 2-degree assumption was deemed 6 ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
unconservative in light of the rather extensive description
of slickensides at the site, especially along the Ells River The authors would like to acknowledge permission granted
valley, where reaches with deep-seated translational by the owners of the Joslyn North lease for publication of
landslides associated with valley-forming processes the information presented in this paper. The authors also
delineated a zone adjacent to the structures where ground wish to acknowledge the large team of geotechnical
conditions may have been worse than assumed. However, colleagues, specialists and reviewers who contributed to
the geotechnical test pit program did not provide support the advancement in understanding and characterization of
for such concern, as no evidence of slickenside or shear Clearwater shale behaviour on this lease. Lastly, we thank
zones were identified, indicating that the prior observations Ms. Lilianne Landry-Pare for translating the abstract into
of slickensides in auger holes were spurious, that is, drill- French.
induced. Therefore, the 2-degree assumption was shown
to be reasonable and possibly somewhat conservative.
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