GRAND FORKS – Eric Chutorash, the chief operating officer of Fufeng USA, met the press on Wednesday evening — marking his first live interview since his company’s plans for a major Grand Forks corn-milling plant were announced in November.
In a 45-minute conversation, Chutorash answered questions about his company’s size, its corporate parent’s links to China, future operations and potential effects on the environment. He underscored that he sees the new corn-milling plant, and its hundreds of millions of dollars in investment costs, as a win for Grand Forks — no matter what critics might say.
“I would argue that the profits are in the community and staying in the community, just from the level of investment that we’re doing. And if the plant and the business continues to be successful, we’re looking to reinvest,” Chutorash said. “And that’s profits that are going back into the community.”
It’s the first statements to the media Chutorash has shared since an email exchange in January, and came the very same day that skeptics of the plant — who are worried about the environment, water availability, and connections to the Chinese government — filed thousands of signatures at City Hall, hoping to force a referendum on the plant’s future.
That’s made Chutorash’s interview with the Herald all the more important. While City Hall has given the new plant its approval, petitioners hope a development deal backing it might go to a citywide vote — and Chutorash’s persuasion could be key for Grand Forks voters.
Critics’ concerns about China have been among the most persistent about the plant. Fufeng USA is the subsidiary of Fufeng Group, which is headquartered in China. Grand Forks Air Force Base is 16 miles from the future plant site; U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. said that the plant “requires due diligence,” because “China is not a reliable partner.”
The resulting worry about the plant has stoked all kinds of speculation about what the factory’s links to China might be. Some, for example, are concerned about Fufeng Group’s proximity to forced labor practices in China. Uighur Muslims, a Chinese ethnic group largely in the country’s northwestern region, have been detained en masse in recent years and, human rights groups say, often have been subjected to forced labor.
“To my knowledge and the company’s knowledge, it’s not in our facilities and it’s not in our supply chain,” 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 Herald also asked numerous questions about the plant’s impact on the surrounding area. Chutorash said the plant’s smell — which city leaders have said could be like corn flakes — will be minimal.
“I don’t want to sit here today and say no one will ever smell anything. I mean, I don’t think that’s fair to say,” Chutorash said. “(But) that’s the goal we’re going to strive to.”
Chutorash also downplayed concerns about contamination in the Red River, noting that the plant will not have a direct wastewater connection to the river.
“Our wastewater — we will pretreat it, and then we send it to the city,” Chutorash said. “And the city is the one that discharges (it).”
And as Chutorash steps into the media spotlight, so too did Keith Lund, head of the local Economic Development Corporation and a key architect of the Fufeng Group deal.
Lund appeared on KNOX radio earlier this month and spoke with the Herald this past week about a recent flyer that was circulated in support of the anti-Fufeng Group petition, clarifying “misinformation” that it contained — notably about city finances behind the project.
The flyer had argued that the Fufeng Group plant will “increase our taxes” by $100 million, roughly the same amount of money that the city plans to spend on infrastructure upgrades to accommodate the new plant.
But Lund argued that’s incorrect. The city is spending about $96.6 million on infrastructure upgrades, nearly $29 million of which will be paid for by permitting fees, state and federal funds, Fufeng Group itself, and the like. Another $17.9 million will be paid through special assessments, which will indeed likely cost nearby landowners for infrastructure improvements.
But while the project will cost the city millions in new costs, Lund argued that there are no plans to raise property taxes to pay for it. City Hall leaders have previously pointed to Fufeng Group water fees as a means of offsetting the costs.
Discounted property taxes for Fufeng Group, Lund added, don’t have to be paid for by Grand Forks residents.
And Chutorash, on Wednesday evening, underscored that he sees the plant as added value for the community — not as a financial drag.
“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.”
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.”
Jodi Carlson, one of the petitioners, still expressed concerns about the environment, public expenditure and more after the forum. She said she was disappointed that the forum with Chutorash didn’t allow the public to call in and ask questions, and expressed frustration that Chutorash referred concerns about the plant’s wastewater discharges to the city.
The Herald solicited questions from the public in the days leading up to the forum; more than 15 questions and follow-ups were asked during the 45-minute event.
Carlson also criticized Chutorash’s responses to questions about forced labor in Fufeng Group’s supply chain, noting that he appeared to qualify his answer — denying the company’s connection to forced labor “to my knowledge.”
“We see that the questions that were asked were questions that he has already responded to publicly, so there was essentially no new information,” Carlson said.