Fufeng USA COO Eric Chutorash plays down China ties, potential smell of proposed Grand Forks plant – Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS – Eric Chutorash, the chief operating officer of Fufeng USA, met the press on Wednesday evening – marking his first live interview since announcing his company’s plans for a major corn milling plant in Grand Forks in November.

During a 45-minute chat, Chutorash answered questions about the size of his company, his parent company’s ties to China, future operations and potential effects on the environment. He stressed that he views the new corn milling plant, and its hundreds of millions of dollars in capital costs, as a win for Grand Forks — no matter what critics might say.

“I would say the benefits are in the community and stay in the community, just because of the level of investment we make. And if the plant and the business continue to thrive, we are looking to reinvest,” Chutorash said. “And those are benefits that go back into the community.”

These are the first media statements Chutorash has shared since an email exchange in January, and came the same day plant skeptics – who worry about the environment, the availability of water and ties to the Chinese government – ​​filed thousands of signatures at city hall, hoping to force a referendum on the plant’s future.

This made Chutorash’s interview with the Herald all the more important. As City Hall has given its approval to the new plant, petitioners hope a development agreement backing it could be put to a citywide vote – and Chutorash’s persuasion could be key for voters of Grand Forks.


Fufeng petition collects over 5,300 signatures

Critics’ worries about China have been among the most persistent about the plant. Fufeng USA is the subsidiary of Fufeng Group, headquartered in China. Grand Forks Air Force Base is 16 miles from the future plant site; U.S. Senator Kevin Cramer, RN.D. said the factory “requires due diligence” because “China is not a reliable partner.”

The resulting concern for the factory has fueled all sorts of speculation about the factory’s ties to China. Some, for example, worry about the Fufeng Group’s closeness to forced labor practices in China. Uyghur Muslims, a Chinese ethnic group mainly present in the northwest region of the country, have been detained en masse in recent years and, according to human rights groups, have often been subjected to forced labor.

“To my knowledge and to the company’s knowledge, it’s not in our facilities and it’s not in our supply chain,” Chutorash said of concerns about forced labor.

He previously provided the city with a third-party review of labor practices at a factory in Fufeng in northwest China showing no forced labor, although labor auditors have grown less confident in their ability to conducting such reviews in recent years, reports the Wall Street Journal.

He also said he never considered being asked to provide military or technical intelligence about the area.

“I know we won’t be asked to collect intelligence on Grand Forks Air Force Base,” Chutorash also said. “I can’t stress more than that. (But) me personally, I wouldn’t provide it. I don’t think the team that’s building there can provide it… Our human resource manager, our sales manager, our sales team and our engineer, they’re from here, they’re not transferees from China. The factory workers will be Americans. I can’t imagine anyone in the establishment would participate in this.

The Herald also asked many questions about the plant’s impact on the surrounding area. Chutorash said the smell of the plant – which city leaders say could resemble corn flakes – will be minimal.

“I don’t want to sit here today and say no one will ever feel anything. I mean, I don’t think it’s fair to say,” Chutorash said. “(But) that’s the goal we’re going to strive for.”

Chutorash also played down concerns about contamination of the Red River, noting that the plant will not have a direct sewage connection to the river.

“Our sewage – we will pre-treat it and then send it to the city,” Chutorash said. “And the city is the one that unloads (it).”

And as Chutorash steps into the media spotlight, Keith Lund, head of the local economic development corporation and key architect of the Fufeng Group deal, has done the same.

Lund appeared on KNOX radio earlier this month and spoke with the Herald last week about a recent leaflet that was released in support of the anti-Fufeng Group petition, clarifying the ‘misinformation’ it contained – in particular on the finances of the city behind the project.

The flyer had argued that the Fufeng Group factory would “raise our taxes” by $100 million, roughly the same amount the city plans to spend on infrastructure upgrades to accommodate the new factory.

But Lund argued that was incorrect. The city is spending about $96.6 million on infrastructure upgrades, of which nearly $29 million will be paid for by permit fees, state and federal funds, the Fufeng Group itself, and more. 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 there were no plans to raise property taxes to pay for it. City hall leaders have previously pointed to the Fufeng Group’s water fee as a way to offset costs.

Reduced property taxes for the Fufeng Group, Lund added, do not have to be paid by residents of Grand Forks.

And Chutorash on Wednesday evening stressed that he sees the plant as adding value to the community – not as a financial drag.

“We have employee announcements, we have revenue announcements, we have shipments,” Chutorash said. “I mean, all of this is more foot traffic at retail, restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations. … We need maintenance, and we need parts, and we need almost everything. So I see that just stimulating a ton of economic activity within the community.

For the skeptics, the reaction to the Chutorash forum has been lukewarm. Several petition campaign organizers said this week that they had not watched or did not plan 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 following the Herald interview, the top responses were “pollution”, “Chinese Communist government involvement”, and “increased taxes and utilities”.

Jodi Carlson, one of the petitioners, again expressed concerns about the environment, government spending and more after the forum. She said she was disappointed that the forum with Chutorash did not allow the public to call in and ask questions, and expressed her frustration that Chutorash had told the city about her concerns about sewage discharges. From the factory.

The Herald solicited questions from the public in the days leading up to the forum; over 15 questions and follow-ups were asked during the 45-minute event.

Carlson also criticized Chutorash’s responses to questions about forced labor in the Fufeng Group’s supply chain, noting that he seemed 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 already answered publicly, so there was essentially no new information,” Carlson said.

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