Zalee Gail Day-Smith was a talkative, smart 14-year-old from a rural corner of southwest Louisiana who dreamed of going to Harvard University, becoming a lawyer and a judge, and one day making the criminal justice system fairer for more people, her father said.
But Day-Smith’s dreams were abruptly snuffed out in a tragic explosion and fire on Feb. 28 at an oil tank battery a few hundred feet from her mom’s house in the Ragley community between DeRidder and Lake Charles.
State Police investigators believe Day-Smith frequently hung out on the Urban Oil and Gas tank battery. She was on top of the first tank that exploded on Feb. 28, throwing her into the air and killing her, a report says.
Her death prompted the state Office of Conservation to propose rules that would require tank batteries close to homes, schools, churches and roads to have security fencing, warning signs and other protective measures to keep people from getting onto the flammable, hazardous equipment.
A nurse at Ochsner Lafayette General has died from complications from COVID-19, according to social media posts from friends and co-workers.
The proposed safety changes in Louisiana come nearly 10 years after the U.S. Chemical Safety Board warned that oil batteries in rural areas posed a unique and dangerous attraction for teens and even young adults living among the nation’s wide-open spaces. The board recommended warnings and other steps to limit public access.
In Louisiana, for instance, the tank batteries are usually set up in far-flung rural areas. They collect the oil and waste salt water, often from a handful of production wells.
The Chemical Safety Board found 26 instances between 1983 and 2010 where people were killed in explosions among the more 800,000 oil tank batteries in the nation.
In those incidents, 44 people were killed and 25 injured. All of the victims were 25 years old or younger.
“They have proven to be a tempting venue for young people looking for a place to gather, and socialize,” the CSB wrote in the September 2011 report. “Activities where an ignition source is introduced into the tank, or even the presence of static electricity or lightning, can cause hydrocarbon vapors in the tanks to ignite and explode.”
The report and its safety recommendations were directed to regulators in Mississippi, Texas and Oklahoma, as well as industry and fire safety groups. They have led to mixed changes to some safety rules, primarily in Mississippi.
The state Office of Conservation doesn’t currently track oil tank batteries individually and couldn’t say how many were in the state. But it’s likely thousands based on the nearly 27,000 active oil wells on the state land.
Day-Smith’s father, Maxwell Smith, has begun to advocate for the changes in Louisiana even as he has struggled to adjust to the idea that his daughter has died.
“Someone that’s that close to you. Your brain refuses to let go and admit she’s never coming back,” he said. “It’s like a bad dream that you live in, for however long. It could be the rest of your life.”
Smith and other family contend the Urban Oil and Gas tank battery behind her mother’s home had no warning signs, fence or gate to keep his daughter or anyone else from getting on the oil tanks.
Day-Smith’s family provided photographs and a video of Day-Smith sitting on the tank by herself and with friends. She is standing on an access ladder that appears to have no gate or fencing.
Day-Smith and her twin brother split time living with their father in DeRidder and mother in Ragley. Their mother had been living in a trailer near the tank battery for about a year at the time of the explosion, family members said.
Day-Smith and other kids in the area congregated on the tanks without any understanding of its dangers, Smith alleged, though exactly why is a point of debate.
This aerial video provided by Louisiana State Police through a records request shows the scene of an oil tank battery explosion on Feb. 28, 20…
Her older half-sister, Mattisun Miner, an incoming senior at South Beauregard who roomed with Day-Smith at their mother’s home, said she thinks Day-Smith just liked being on the elevated tanks that overlooked the area to think.
Miner said she doesn’t recall any of her neighbors indicating the tank battery posed a risk and said lots of people crisscrossed past the tanks and even took pictures on them.
“We’ve always hung out by it,” Miner said.
In the days after the explosion, the State Fire Marshal’s Office concluded that Day-Smith’s presence near the tanks was a contributing factor in the blast, without saying how.
That investigation is still pending, but the state troopers have finished theirs and provided a redacted copy of their investigate reports to The Advocate after a public records request.
State Police investigators and local law enforcement collected several allegations surrounding the circumstances leading up to the explosion on Feb. 28, including a claim that an unnamed youth, who does not appear to be Day-Smith, had been lighting fires near the tanks.
Troopers also received a claim that Day-Smith was dropping things in one of the tanks through an unsecured hatch — a claim her father disputed — and that at least one witness saw other youths running from the tanks at the time of the explosion.
Capt. Nick Manale, spokesman for Louisiana State Police, said investigators didn’t reach any conclusions on those claims and didn’t issue citations or fines in connection with the investigation.
“Conflicting witness statements and lack of evidence could not lead to a definitive cause of the ignition and explosion,” Manale said.
Troopers said they would evaluate new information if it became available. Urban Oil officials expressed their sympathies for the Day-Smith’s death and defended their safety record but declined to offer further comment.
Whatever was the spark, the explosion at the tank battery was massive.
Though the last of the two oil wells that the battery had served was shut and stopped production a year earlier, the oil tanks still held a combined 190 barrels of oil, according to State Police and conservation officials.
One witness was working in his backyard and said he saw the first, fullest tank explode “with a fireball underneath it and went 20 (feet) in the air, when the shock wave knocked me off my feet backwards.”
Smith, 58, who has spent a career working in oil and gas, bristles at the idea that some have tried to lay the blame on his daughter. He says that none of this would have happened if the tanks been fenced off.
He said it doesn’t make sense that swimming pools must be fenced off to avoid dangers to children but not oil field sites with volatile chemicals.
Patrick Courreges, spokesman for the Louisiana Office of Conservation, said agency officials weren’t aware of the CSB’s 2011 report on tank batteries until after the Feb. 28 explosion, but they have used its recommendations as a basis for the proposed regulatory changes.
It’s not immediately clear how widely the CSB directly provided its report to the nation’s numerous industrial regulators, but CSB publishes its reports online.
The proposed Louisiana rules have not yet been put out for public notice and comment because they are awaiting a fiscal estimate, Conservation officials said. The process could take until the fall to enact the rules, depending on comments. But The Advocate obtained a copy of the rules and shared them with Urban Oil and the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.
LOGA officials said they are working with the state office to “come to a reasonable solution on this matter.”
“The incident that led to this proposed rule change was a tragedy but is not an ongoing or regular occurrence within our industry,” said Stephen Lewerenz, the LOGA spokesman. “We are committed to working with the government on common-sense reforms to make industry practices safer.”
Conservation officials said they couldn’t recall an explosion in recent memory in Louisiana before the Feb. 28 blast, but the 2011 CSB report documented three in Louisiana over nearly 30 years, two in 2001 and one in 1990.
Among the proposed rules changes, one would allow the state to start individually tracking the oil batteries, which have been treated in the past as part of a well’s infrastructure, Conservation officials said.