Resources for Patients and their Families

Cenex Harvest States

The Cenex Harvest States oil refinery in Laurel, Montana, has been associated with the chemical benzene, which can lead to leukemia, MDS and other cancers.

Company Background

Cenex Harvest States was formed in 1998 when the company Cenex (short for the Farmers Union Central Exchange, founded in 1931) merged with Harvest States Cooperatives. The company is held by CHS, Inc., a Fortune 500 holding company that includes a number of US agricultural cooperatives. CHS's claim to fame is as one of the largest convenience store chains in the United States. CHS refers to itself as "a diversified energy, grains and food company committed to providing the essential resources that enrich lives around the world."

Cenex Harvest States in Laurel, Montana, is a refinery that manufactures Cenex-brand diesel products and gasoline. It has a sister facility in McPherson, Kansas. As of 2003, "Cenex" officially refers to the energy arm of CHS , which produces propane, lubricants and refined fuels.

Benzene and People

Benzene is a highly flammable chemical that is liquid at room temperature. It is generally light yellow or completely colorless, and it does not dissolve well in water. It is extremely common, and ranks among the top 20 chemicals in terms of production volume in the United States. Benzene occurs naturally in forest fires, volcanoes and crude oil, but it can also be man-made.

Benzene exposure generally happens via air or water. Airborne benzene comes from products that contain benzene, which may include glue, gasoline, furniture wax, and/or paints. Waterborne benzene occurs when underground storage tanks leak and contaminate well water.

Benzene poisoning is harmful to humans. The seriousness of the poisoning depends on the amount and length of exposure. The general effect is decreased cell function. Bone marrow affected by benzene may not produce enough red blood cells (leading to anemia). There may also be negative effects on the immune system. Symptoms of benzene poisoning may include drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, an irregular heartbeat and confusion. If consumed, benzene may lead to vomiting and stomach irritation. High levels of exposure may lead to death.

Long-term health effects include anemia and excessive bleeding. In women, benzene exposure may lead to irregular menstruation and decreased ovary size. The Department of Health and Human Services has concluded that long-term exposure to high levels of benzene can lead to leukemia (blood cancer).

About Laurel, Montana

Laurel, Montana, is located in Yellowstone County, in the southern portion of the state. It is close to the Yellowstone River, Interstate 90 and several railroad lines, making it well suited for transit and industry. Laurel Yard, on the Montana Rail Link, is officially the largest rail yard between Minnesota and Washington.

Cenex Oil Refinery is one of the largest industries in Laurel. It processes 59,600 barrels of crude oil per day.

Asbestos in Oil Refineries

During the greater part of the 20th century, whenever extreme temperature or combustion was a concern, various forms of asbestos were chosen as an insulator. Plants like Cenex Harvest States oil refinery in Laurel, Montana, as a result, were generally made using materials that contained asbestos. Another property of certain types of the fibrous mineral is that they resist chemicals. As a result, asbestos was utilized in coating materials, benches and protective clothing. One of the ironic things about asbestos is that although it does very well at guarding against the harm associated with combustion or heat - it is one of the most effective insulators known and has been used for the purpose throughout history - it also poses significant risks to human well being.

Amosite was often the variety of asbestos utilized in these locations. The brownish pigment associated with amosite comes from iron molecules in its chemical makeup; this also makes amosite resistant to acidic chemicals, such as those produced in oil refineries. Although it was prohibited from use in building materials in the 1970s, this amosite, in the form of asbestos transite, was utilized for decades in chemical plants, oil refineries and labs throughout the US.

Asbestos transite displayed qualities like cement; it could be molded into working surfaces, sprayed onto ductwork and pipes and laminated. For the most part, new items built with transite were considered safe because the asbestos fibers were encapsulated in the transite. However, when this transite aged, it was prone to becoming powdery, which enabled the lethal, microscopic particles to flake off into the air. Asbestos in this condition is considered friable, a term that is used to describe material that is easily pulverized. In addition, industrial kilns almost always contained friable asbestos as part of their insulation linings.

The Dangers of Friable Asbestos

When friable, asbestos particles are easily dispersed into the environment. Inhaling asbestos particles can result in conditions like cancer. Another uncommon, but often fatal, disease linked to asbestos is mesothelioma. The pleural variety of mesothelioma, which attacks the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity, is the most common. Peritoneal and pericardial mesothelioma are linked to swallowing fibers of asbestos, which is likely if the microscopic particles float in the air and settle on food or drinks.

Mounting pressure from citizen groups, the media and the medical community forced the creation of regulations controlling how to use asbestos. However, when facilities such as the Laurel, Montana, Cenex Harvest States oil refinery were first operating, the use of asbestos was more common. Any asbestos that remains from that period may still pose danger if containment protocols are not observed during remodeling jobs.

The Ticking Bomb

Asbestos-related diseases, as opposed to typical work-related injuries, which are easily observed and known about soon after the incident, can take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to appear. With such a long time between exposure and the onset of symptoms, the worker might not even associate the current condition with work done decades earlier. It is vital, therefore, that all that worked at or spent much time around sites like Cenex Harvest States oil refinery in Laurel, Montana, ask their doctors for mesothelioma information. New ways to combat the disease, like mesothelioma surgery, are being discovered, and early detection gives the patient the highest chance to beat the previously always-fatal form of cancer.



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Facts About Benzene

CHS - CHS Facts (

CHS - CHS History

Laurel, Montana - Welcome to Laurel

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal

Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog



MCA Observes World Day for Safety and Health at Work

Life After Cancer: What Survivorship Means for These Individuals

Baylor Mesothelioma Doctor Has High Hopes for Preoperative Immunotherapy