Dark cloud hangs over gas station property

By Bob Morgan
Posted 7/24/07

SUMMERDALE - Drive past The Corner Station at Ala. Highway 59 and Shriver Avenue and you'll see a business shut down and buttoned up tight. What you won't see from the highway are the legal and environmental entanglements that have, to this point, …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Subscribe to continue reading. Already a subscriber? Sign in

Get the gift of local news. All subscriptions 50% off for a limited time!

You can cancel anytime.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Dark cloud hangs over gas station property


SUMMERDALE - Drive past The Corner Station at Ala. Highway 59 and Shriver Avenue and you'll see a business shut down and buttoned up tight. What you won't see from the highway are the legal and environmental entanglements that have, to this point, made The Corner Station an abandoned outpost on the road to nowhere for the couple that operated the business for some 30 years.

Bob and Elizabeth Murphree, now in their sixties, had planned to turn their business over to their daughter after they retired. Now, after nearly 10 years of court appeals and trying to satisfy the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), the Murphrees can't sell the property and get themselves out of a financial hole. The cloud that hangs over The Corner Station started with a polluted well.

It was in May 2002 that 235 households and businesses in Summerdale officially learned that the only water well in town was contaminated with benzene. That well was shut down.

The presence of benzene in the town water supply had been detected in 1999. According to a letter sent out to town residents on May 7, 2002, benzene is permitted by ADEM in public water supplies at levels up to 5 parts per billion. A test by ADEM, however, showed the town's water supply exceeding the allowable level by .08 (eight one hundreths) parts per billion, as the letter stated, "… just barely over the limit."

A couple of gas stations located within a quarter-mile of the water well were cited then as the probable source of the benzene. One of them was The Corner Station.

By early 2003 a Mobile attorney filed suit on behalf of the town against two owners of gas stations along Highway 59, the Murphrees and Paul T.N. Dao, who owned a station on the west side of 59 that eventually burned down. Also included in the lawsuit was the Price W. Malone Trust. The town's contention was that underground gasoline storage tanks had leaked, moved across the Trust property and contaminated the well.

Right then, hundreds of thousands of dollars were mentioned in connection with the town finding a new well site. Eventually, hundreds of thousands of dollars would be required of the Murphrees, even a potential million dollars.

Today, the Murphrees still live in the small town where they operated The Corner Station for years. ADEM equipment, unplugged, still sets on the gas station property. And in a small town, where everybody is a neighbor of sorts, different versions exist concerning why The Corner Station closed and who is to blame for the Murphrees' current situation.


Kim Topp of Foley calls Bob and Elizabeth Murphree her "second parents. These people practically raised me. I'm best friends with their daughter." On top of that, Topp's late mother was Elizabeth's best friend.

Topp calls The Corner Station a "Mom and Pop" business and the Murphrees "old school" people who "take people at their word." They're not business people, she adds.

"Day to day, the life they lead now, it's hard for them to find gas money to go babysit their grandchildren," she said.

"It breaks my heart because they have done so much for so many people."

Nancy Harmon, a realtor and friend of the family, has even stronger words for ADEM.

"It disgusts me that our government will do this to an elderly couple. It destroys a family. They (ADEM) have the ability to fix it but won't."

Larry Bennett, a realtor who lists The Corner Station property, said the Murphrees are "devastated" by what's happened to them these past years.

"When the foot came down they didn't know how to move and they got stepped on," he said of the Murphrees.

Harmon has certified check stubs totaling approximately $349,000 that, she said, came about as a result of the Murphrees' attempt to follow ADEM guidelines to upgrade their station in light of the environmental lawsuit filed by the town. The money was spent for new fuel tanks, testing, hauling in new dirt and the like, she said, noting the Murphrees refinanced their business and home to raise the money.

She also had a copy of a letter from Dorothy S. Malaier, a chief with ADEM, dated Dec. 8, 2006, in which ADEM reminds the Murphrees that "… the use of Federal Leaking Underground Storage Tank funds is subject to cost recovery." The letter notes $327,192 has been expended at The Corner Station for "investigative and cleanup activities."

Harmon and Bennett also allege that ADEM wants the Murphrees to pay $40,000 to have the piece of ADEM remediation equipment removed from The Corner Station property. Another $367,000 ADEM wants from people whose property was almost sold at auction on the courthouse steps by the bank recently, they point out.

"There's not a paycheck in this for me," said Harmon. "I'm doing this because somebody's got to do something."

"There are buyers out there who will buy this (Corner Station property) but we can't get the cloud removed," said Bennett, who has listed the property since May 9, 2007.

Citing ADEM's Lee Thomas, the project manager for The Corner Station remediation, Bennett quotes Thomas as telling him that should someone buy The Corner Station property, ADEM will come after them for the money, presumably the $367,000.

But friends of the Murphrees don't only blame the state for the Murphrees' situation, but the town of Summerdale as well, especially Mayor David Wilson.


When the Summerdale lawsuit against the Murphrees, Dao and the Price W. Malone Trust went to court in late 2004, the Murphrees didn't show up. Harmon, Topp and others say they didn't because Wilson told Bob Murphree it wasn't necessary for them to be present.

"He (Bob) was trusting what Mayor Wilson was telling him," Harmon said.

The upshot was that jurors granted a default against the Murphrees on Nov. 3, 2004, in the amount of $950,221 and, the next day, returned a verdict favorable to Dao and the Trust.

"A lot of people have blamed me for it but Bob knows," Wilson said recently during a telephone interview. Indeed, Wilson said he even went by and asked Bob Murphree to go with him to court but Murphree said there was no need for him to go.

"I went to court when he (Murphree) appealed it (trial court's ruling), and said all I could to help him," Wilson said. But the mayor said Bob Murphree never did the right thing; he never once tried to buy any insurance, had no liability against such an event occurring at The Corner Station as did occur, and, of course, never went to any of the court hearings.

"In all reality, everybody was guilty, no doubt," said Wilson of the three plaintiffs in the trial court case.

So why were the Murphrees saddled with a near million dollar default and Dao and the Trust absolved? Wilson said jurors took the Murphrees to be "Murphy Oil Co." and never figured out otherwise. When they weren't in court, jurors decided to make wealthy "Murphy Oil Co." pay the town of Summerdale, he said.

"The town has done everything we possibly can to help them," Wilson said of the Murphrees. Of the judgment granted by the court, Wilson said the town has never tried to collect it.

"The town by all rights could own his property, but what good would that do us?"

The town council agreed last year that the Murphrees could donate $10,000 to the new Summerdale library, the money designated for environmental studies and such.

But Larry Bennett, the realtor, makes a point about the Murphree's hiring a lawyer and going after ADEM: "They don't have two nickels to give an attorney."

Bennett asked Wilson to buy The Corner Station property since the mayor lives next door to it. Wilson, however, said that would lead some to conclude that he had an agenda and forced the Murphrees out to lower the price of the property.

"As a child growing up, we actually managed and ran that station," said Wilson, a cousin of Sam Ard, who owned it back then.

Being a neighbor was a big thing to Wilson back on Feb. 13, 2003, at a special called meeting of the Summerdale Town Council. Wilson abstained when a vote was taken to hire the Mobile attorney to take action against the two gas station owners. Three months earlier Wilson asked the minutes to reflect that he did not want a lawsuit directed at the Murphrees.

At that special called meeting, Wilson, mayor of a then finanicially-strapped town, abstained again when the council moved to file suit.



"I've had a buyer - she's had a buyer," Bennett said, referring to Harmon and The Corner Station property.

"Why don't you finish this," is the question Bennett has posed to Lee Thomas, the project manager at ADEM. Bennett's impression of Thomas is, "He'll get to it when he gets to it. It's not important."

Attempts to reach Thomas in connection with this article proved unsuccessful. Scott Hughes, public relations director for ADEM, said a key component in the Murphrees' case is, because The Corner Station wasn't in compliance with ADEM regulations when the benzene pollution occurred, the State Trust Fund that would have covered cleanup costs doesn't apply.

Instead, the Federal Trust Fund for leaking storage tanks applies, and those costs have to be recovered. Hughes said ADEM puts the cost at approximately $330,000, the figure from the Dec. 8, 2006, letter.

He called cost recovery efforts an "after the fact" process; that ADEM must "attempt" to recover those costs.

So, when might ADEM conceivably make a determination on a "No Further Action" letter in connection with the Murphree property? ADEM has given Perry, Pyron & McCown Consultants Inc. of Daphne a July 31 deadline to submit information back to them, Hughes said. Some information already submitted by PPM needs clarification, he added.

And, too, because the Federal Trust Fund is involved, that can lead to certain delays, Hughes said.

"I wouldn't think it would be years before a decision is made," said Hughes, who, nevertheless, pointed out that the upcoming findings from PPM could potentially lead to "another round of remediation action" at the site where The Corner Station once pumped gas.