Voters may have final say over controversial Chinese-backed plant

It’s not official yet, but the fate of a controversial $350 million Chinese-backed agriculture processing plant tentatively approved by the Grand Forks City Council may soon be in the hands of residents. Opponents of the proposed Fufeng Group plant appear to have submitted hundreds more signatures than necessary on a petition to put the huge economic development project on the ballot for final approval.

The unusual grassroots drive has brought together residents with widely divergent reasons for opposing the plant, including taxpayer subsidies, environmental issues and national security concerns over the nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base. The unusual campaign could put the issue before voters as soon as June, according to the Grand Forks Herald.

Petitioners who want a citywide vote on the future of Fufeng Group’s Grand Forks corn-milling plant say they dropped off more than 5,300 signatures at City Hall — potentially enough to force an election and scuttle a major business deal.

Ben Grzadzielewski, one of the leading members of the petition drive, said that petitioners handed over 5,318 signatures at 11 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

“They (the signatures) have to be verified, and then we’re going to have to come up with a game plan and get some talking points together,” Grzadzielewski said, adding that the signature count came in higher than backers had expected. “We had a great group of people that put in the work. I think our efforts are going to pay off.”

City officials still need to verify signatures and clarify the legalities of putting the issue on a citywide ballot. They also face pressure to nail down the precise wording of the referendum in time to include it in the next general election two months from now.

On the same day as opponents turned in the petition at city hall, one of Fufeng’s top officials addressed local concerns in an interview with the Herald, including questions about forced labor of Uighurs in northwest China.

“To my knowledge and the company’s knowledge, it’s not in our facilities and it’s not in our supply chain,” [Fufeng Group COO Eric] Chutorash said to concerns about forced labor.

He had previously supplied the city with a third-party review of a Fufeng Plant’s labor practices in northwestern China showing no forced labor, though labor auditors have grown less confident in their ability to conduct such reviews in recent years, the Wall Street Journal reports.

He also said he doesn’t envision ever being asked to supply any sort of military or technical intelligence about the region.

“I know we’re not going to be asked to be collecting any intelligence on Grand Forks Air Force Base,” Chutorash also said. “I can’t stress it any more than that. (But) me personally, I wouldn’t provide it. I don’t believe the team being built there would provide it…Our HR director, commercial director and sales team and engineer, they’re from here – they’re not people transferred from China. The workers in the plant will be Americans. I can’t imagine that anybody in the facility would participate in that.”

The Fufeng COO and supporters pointed out the plant would provide 200 jobs and significant economic activity and opportunities locally.

“We’ve got the employee adds, we’ve got the income adds, we have the shipping,” Chutorash said. “I mean, all of that is more foot traffic through retail, and restaurants and convenience stores and gas stations. … We need the maintenance, and we need parts, and we need basically everything. So I just see this spurring just a ton of economic activity within the community.”

But afterward, distrust of the project still evidently runs deep, as city officials evaluate the validity of the petition and what comes next.

For skeptics, the reaction to Chutorash’s forum was tepid. Multiple organizers with the petitioning campaign said this week that they had not watched or did not intend to watch the interview. The group’s Facebook page, “GF Community Awareness of FuFeng Project,” polled its nearly 1,000 members on Thursday to ask what their top concerns about the plant were.

In the days after the Herald interview, the top responses were “pollution,” “Communist Chinese Government involvement,” and “increased taxes and utilities.”