Fufeng all but done, Grand Forks council says; opponents 'very excited' by news

Jan. 31—GRAND FORKS — Members of the Grand Forks City Council say it's unlikely the city will move forward on a controversial corn mill project after a representative from the U.S. Department of the Air Force

declared it a "significant threat to national security."

As the news bubbled through the community, it brought tears to the eyes of an opponent of the project.

"I was actually in tears when I finally heard (the news), because this has been a long-fought battle," Jodi Carlson said. "The citizens who have fought against this for almost a year and a half now, as has been said previously, have dealt with a great deal of belittling and name calling. And not just from other citizens — from the City Council as well."

The factory — proposed to be built by Fufeng USA — first was announced in November 2021, but has been met with harsh criticism in the months since. Last summer,

both of North Dakota's U.S. senators voiced their objections

to the project, citing national security concerns due to the plant's proximity to Grand Forks Air Force Base.

On Tuesday, Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer released a letter from Andrew P. Hunter, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics. The letter was clear and concise in its disapproval of the Fufeng project.

"While (

a review by the Committee of Foreign Investment in the United States recently

) concluded that it does not have jurisdiction, the (Department of the Air Force's) view is unambiguous: the proposed project presents a significant threat to national security with both near- and long-term risks of significant impacts to our operations in the area," Hunter wrote.

Tuesday, members of the City Council told the Herald they now doubt Fufeng will move forward in Grand Forks.

"It's nice to have a concrete answer to this concern, and/or risk, that has been out there for a long time," said Councilman Ken Vein, who late Tuesday afternoon said he still wants to see for himself the communication from the Air Force. "This was — and always was going to be — an issue that had to be addressed, and we have it addressed. Unless something is in there that I am not aware of, I don't know how we would proceed."

Whereas Fufeng owns more than 300 acres along the northern portion of the city, it likely cannot proceed with its plans to build the mill without city water and building permits. The council's next scheduled meeting is Monday.

Vein said he was concerned about potential impacts to the Air Force base. Now, he appreciates getting direction from the Air Force.

"Having confirmation of an issue from the Air Force, as I am hearing it, is huge. It changes the whole perspective on the project," he said.

Council President Dana Sande said the council has always felt that if the Air Force objects, it likely would form an insurmountable hurdle for the project.

"I think we've been relatively consistent with that if we got any sort of official notification that Fufeng is a threat to national security, that we wouldn't continue with the project," Sande said. "Based upon this information, I guess I wouldn't see us issuing water permits and those sorts of things to Fufeng."

Councilwoman Rebecca Osowski, who has voiced her concerns regarding the proposed Fufeng project before, said she is "thankful" for the recent statement from the Air Force.

"I'm very thankful that the Air Force has decided to speak up about the project. I have been opposed to the project the entire time and so I am thankful that they did speak up about that," Osowski said Tuesday afternoon. "I am also very thankful to the Grand Forks citizens who have really put in a lot of time and effort and fighting for things that they believe in and voicing their concerns with the project. I think they did a fabulous job. I'm excited that the Air Force came out and made a statement."

Osowski said with the statement, there are now no more questions regarding the potential of national security threats.

"The question that I really brought to the table was no one has put our minds at ease about the espionage that eventually could come with Fufeng. And so now there are no more questions on whether or not this poses a national security risk," she said. "The Air Force came out, made their statement, we know now. We know officially that there is a national security risk. There are no more questions about it."

Councilman Danny Weigel sees the Hunter letter as a firm indicator that the project won't move forward.

"I've essentially said that every project is a process and part of that process is to evaluate whether there's a national security threat," Weigel said. "I think now that we have that information, it makes it easy that obviously the project cannot go on and that's where I stand on it."

Councilman Kyle Kvamme also said he will be voting against the project going forward.

"All along, anyone I talked to, I just said it was waiting on an official statement or actual law or some sort of policy to act on. This seems like a very clear official statement, so I will be voting no," Kvamme said. "This is what we needed to hear. We aren't equipped for national intelligence concerns, but at the same point, I don't like taking action on rumors. So I would say this is a great victory, in the federal government coming in and assisting the city with the support we had been asking for."

Councilwoman Tricia Lunski did not return messages seeking comment. She told a WDAY reporter that she was traveling Tuesday.

Carlson, a Grand Forks resident and opponent of the Fufeng project for months, said she and other opponents are all "very relieved that this decision has been made not only by the United States Air Force, but also we had heard that (Mayor Brandon) Bochenski has essentially conceded and it will go in front of the council for a vote at the next council meeting."

Carlson noted there are bills currently going through the North Dakota Legislature related to foreign land purchases in the U.S.

One is House Bill 1135

, which would ban certain foreign entities from purchasing agricultural land in the state.

"People need to pay attention to that and be on top of their local and federal government to see what's happening there and to get involved," she said.

Ben Grzadzielewski also has been a vocal opponent, and took a leadership role in a petition drive early last year that attempted to halt the city's development agreement with Fufeng. The drive accumulated enough signatures, but the petition was

declared invalid by the city for legal issues

and formatting reasons. A judge later backed the decision.

Tuesday, the Herald asked Grzadzielewski about his feelings on the latest news.

"In the kindest way I can think to say it: Don't mess with the people," he said. "It's unfortunate they didn't listen to us. We have been harping on them for dang near a year now. It could have saved a lot of heartache."

He said opponents are "very excited. We put in a lot of work. ... It's nice to see the hard work pay off."

Councilman Bret Weber said "I always said if something came up contrary to the development agreement" the council would likely move in another direction. However, he is concerned about how this will affect development going forward.

He said he wishes the senators would have "let us know months ago. We have no idea what information they had, but it's hard to imagine something new happened today, so it feels like politics. ... I think our senators today helped North Dakota shoot itself in the foot. I am worried about the future of economic development in Grand Forks and the state."