Controversial proposed Chinese plant in Grand Forks faces scrutiny

Ten months after Chinese-linked Fufeng Group announced plans for a corn milling plant in Grand Forks, the controversial project remains the target of stubborn opposition locally and increasing scrutiny nationally, due to its proximity to the strategic nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base. Just this week legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate that could effectively prohibit Chinese-backed agricultural projects from moving forward on national security grounds, according to Forum News.

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., has introduced a bill to block businesses from China and a handful of other countries from purchasing American farmland or agricultural businesses.

If passed, Rounds says the legislation would allow the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to review the purchase of land near Grand Forks Air Base in North Dakota by Fufeng Group , an agricultural company based in China. The purchase and subsequent proposal of a corn milling plant have turned into a major controversy in and around Grand Forks, with opponents worried about the possibility of Chinese surveillance of military activities.

“It’s a good example of a purchase that should have some real oversight because they’re really close to that base. And that base is a very sensitive base, you fly drones out of that,” Rounds told Forum News Service on Wednesday, Aug. 17, in an interview at DakotaFest. “They just chose that location of all the places they could go, and want to put in a corn processing facility. It seems a little out of place.”

The legislation follows a request by North Dakota Republican Senators Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven for top U.S. officials to scrutinize the project, as well. Both senators told local media they also have serious reservations over the proposed plant due to the potential vulnerability of the air force base.

In the letter, the senators wrote: “that Fufeng operations could provide cover for the PRC (People’s Republic of China) surveillance or interference with the missions located at that installation, given Fufeng Group’s reported ties to the Chinese Communist Party.”

Senator Kevin Cramer has long been opposed to the project.

One question Cramer poses: There are plenty of other locations besides Grand Forks with more corn?

“One thing Grand Forks County and the area are not, they are not in the heart of corn country. They’re certainly on the fringe of it, but not in the heart of it, so I have always been a little bit suspicious of the value of the location to corn milling and also concerned about the value of the location to potential spying.”

Meantime, the Grand Forks Herald notes that supporters of a petition to give city residents the chance to vote on the proposed plant got their day in court this week. The petition garnered more than enough signatures to qualify in April, but the city rejected it on the grounds it did not meet legal requirements.

Attorney Robert Dube, representing Grzadzielewski and “People for the Vote” LLC, said the city’s decision to nullify the petition infringed on residents’ right to vote.

“We are here today because the city of Grand Forks, through its city auditor, has ripped apart that fabric of liberty, denying my client and the 50,000 citizens of Grand Forks their right to vote under the home rule charter,” Dube said.

But attorneys for the city of Grand Forks argued that the Fufeng project can proceed as planned, even if residents get the opportunity to vote it down.

Attorney Scott Porsborg, representing the city, argued that if the people are eventually granted a vote, Fufeng can still move forward with the plant because of the development agreement, which protects the city financially.

“The Fufeng project can go forward anyway,” Porsborg said. “But it would go forward without the protections that these contracts provide. We’re at the point where the land is rezoned — Fufeng owns it, it’s been annexed into the city. Fufeng can go forward with this project if it chose to, even without these agreements.”

When it comes down to it, the fate of the controversial project may be out of the hands of both the city and voters. The timing couldn’t be worse for the proposed plant as tensions between the U.S. and China ensure it undergoes scrutiny at the highest levels in Washington.