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Zurik: Family pushes for change after tank thought to be abandoned explodes, killing teenage girl

Thousands of so-called ‘Shut-In Future Utility’ wells litter the Louisiana landscape with little enforcement to permanently plug them
Updated: Jul. 21, 2021 at 10:00 PM CDT
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BEAUREGARD PARISH, La. (WVUE) - The family of a 14-year-old southwest Louisiana girl is pushing for changes following the death of their loved one. Zalee Day, 14, died on Feb. 28 when the oil tank she was playing on exploded.

Zalee Day, seen posing for photos on the oil well near her home in Beauregard Parish, La.
Zalee Day, seen posing for photos on the oil well near her home in Beauregard Parish, La.(WVUE-TV)

“She loved Romeo and Juliet. It was her thing, and those tanks were her towers,” Maxwell Smith, Zalee’s father, said. “She’d climb on top of them and act like she was being Juliet.”

Zalee’s parents said those tanks became a neighborhood playground with kids there “all the time.”

“All the time there were kids playing on this,” Smith said. “I mean there were police officers driving right down there to that trailer when there were kids playing on this [the tanks.]”

The neighborhood thought the oil company that owned the tank and well, Urban Oil and Gas, had plugged and abandoned (”P&A”) the well.

“Police officers would come right through this location, kids were playing here and nobody ever said anything,” he said. “Because everyone assumed it was a dead well. Everyone assumed it was a P&A-ed well.”

They learned on February 28, 2021, the well was anything but abandoned. The well exploded shooting the tank hundreds of feet in the air and killing 14-year-old Zalee Day. She was alone, playing on the tanks when the blast occurred.

Surveillance video from a nearby church captured the moments the tank ignited, sending Zalee and the tank hundreds of feet in the air and in distance.

“Her body was so crushed, we had to have a closed casket,” Smith said.

Urban Oil and Gas provided two photos it said is from the site where Zalee Day lost her life in...
Urban Oil and Gas provided two photos it said is from the site where Zalee Day lost her life in an explosion. They said the site had a 'No Trespassing' sign and a sticker that warned 'Keep Off Tanks.'(Urban Oil and Gas)

Urban Oil and Gas said in a statement, “there was in fact signage on the site of the accident which included: a “No Trespassing” sign, a hazardous material sign, notice to “Keep off the Tanks.” The company provided two photos of the “No Trespassing” and “Keep off the Tanks” sign. However, the metadata for the ‘No Trespassing’ sign shows a location more than half a mile from the blast site.

Zalee’s family disputes the company’s claims of signs being on the tanks and says the landowners gave everyone permission to roam the property.

“That’s ridiculous for you to have, or myself to have a fence around a swimming pool – state law – but you don’t have to have one around an explosive volatile oil field site. What happened here?” Smith said.

The well, owned by Urban Oil and Gas was not plugged, instead, placed on a special list with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, which allows essentially abandoned wells to stay unplugged. The state calls them “Shut-In Future Utility” wells meaning they are inactive but they could restart active status. However, if they remain in the “Shut-In” status for five years, operators are assessed a $250 annual assessment to keep them on that list.

SHUT-IN FUTURE UTILITY WELLS IN LOUISIANA

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Currently, the state has approximately 18,000 wells that have the “Shut-In Future Utility” status, including the one that killed Zalee Day.

Nearly half of the “Shut-In Future Utility” wells have been on the list for more than ten years.

“We know the longer a well stays in that shut-in status, the more likely it’s going to be that way forever and possibly end up with us [to orphan],” Patrick Courreges, a spokesperson with the Department of Natural Resources, said.

The lower-end of plugging a well costs about $50,000. A company could instead pay the $250 annual assessment every year and it would take 200 years, about two lifetimes, to reach that $50,000 cost.

“As long as they’ve got an operator who is maintaining within the rules [they are allowed to stay on the shut-in list.]” Courreges said.

Zalee’s family says there is no motivation for companies to ever plug a “shut-in” well.

The “shut-in” wells are littered across the state, in 57 of the state’s 64 parishes. Right now, the state has no existing regulations to warn residents of potential dangers.

“Zalee was a very smart, law-abiding child. If there’d been signs saying explosives or something warning her, she would’ve stayed away from it. There was nothing at all out there,” Maxwell Smith said.

In October of 2020, instead of plugging and abandoning the well that killed Zalee Day, Urban Oil and Gas decided to place it on the state’s “shut-in” list.

“I hold the oil company and frankly I hold the politicians too, I don’t mean to be ugly or nothing I just...it’s like there were no guidelines, there were no boundaries,” LeNora Day, Zalee’s mother, said.

“It’s just not right, it’s just so unfair. I see her big smile,” Day said. “She was going to make a difference. She already did make a difference in everything.”

Chase Hickman, Zalee’s cousin, remembers the fourteen-year-old who was the same age as one of his children.

“It’s been rough on us. It’s been rough a lot. And my children, I got a fourteen-year-old boy, same age as Zalee. And this was his first experience of the loss of a family member, a friend and everything,” he said.

”It melted me just as I mean, the death of Zalee melted me. I mean, it was is horrible. It’s just something you don’t want to hear a child dying, passing away.”

Kent Carroll, Zalee’s brother, recalled hearing the blast from miles away helping an in-law repair a broken-down car.

“It was probably about 30 minutes after hearing I saw cops flying down the highway and I didn’t think anything of it. It was probably an hour later somebody called me,” he said.

“I mean...they got safety switches on lighters that are childproof, you know? And this place didn’t even have anything, no fence or nothing. That means an animal could have climbed on it or something and caused that...you know, anything could’ve.”

The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Office of Conservation said they are in the process of making a rule that would require fencing to be added to these tanks.

The company that owned the tank battery that exploded, Urban Oil and Gas, issued the following statement:

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