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Residents concerned about Fufeng plant, but city leaders say it's an important project for local development

What will the plant smell like? What will it look like? How many new trains and trucks will soon flow through Grand Forks’ collective backyard?

Phil Kramer.jpg
Phil Kraemer, board chairman in Falconer Township, feels residents in his township were blindsided by the announcement by Fufeng Group to build a corn-milling plant and annex a portion of the township north of Grand Forks.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — At Grand Forks City Hall, the November announcement of a new Fufeng Group corn-milling plant was big and exciting. The promise of hundreds of new jobs — plus millions and millions of dollars of construction work — was a tantalizing glimpse at a booming future.

But not everyone was happy to hear the news. Residents are especially wary in Falconer Township, where the plant is planned in their midst along Grand Forks’ northern edge.

“The first part of December, we started to hear some specifics of where it’s at,” said Phil Kramer, chairman of Falconer Township’s Board of Supervisors. “And we went ‘wait a minute, this is going to be in the southern end of Falconer township. How is this going to work, what does this entail and what’s the city going to do?’ ”

And many wonder what kind of neighbor Fufeng Group will be.

That’s a concern relevant far beyond Falconer Township. What will the plant smell like? What will it look like? How many new trains and trucks will soon flow through Grand Forks’ collective backyard?

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“The traffic issue, that’s going to be not just Falconer,” Kraemer said. He imagines train traffic crossing Gateway Drive and elsewhere, clogging up travel well beyond his jurisdiction. “You’re going to have some traffic delays there.”

Several residents spoke during the public-input portion of a City Council work session earlier this week, marking some of the first public criticism of the project, which was announced in November as the largest single private capital investment in the region's history.

The city has tried to reassure residents that the impact on Grand Forks will be minimal. City Hall is seeking both a traffic and an odor study on the plant in the near future, and City Administrator Todd Feland said Grand Forks will spike the deal with Fufeng Group if it can’t meet its responsibilities as they’re spelled out in a still-unapproved development agreement.

“We wouldn’t be doing our due diligence, we wouldn’t be doing our leadership obligations, and we wouldn’t be doing the greater good of the community without identifying real challenges,” he said. “And if those challenges can’t be overcome, we need to be able to present that to the City Council on behalf of the citizens of Grand Forks.”

One comparison the city has relied on is in Blair, Nebraska, home to a Cargill corn-milling plant and one of two cities Grand Forks leaders visited last month as they prepare for their deal with Fufeng.

Blair City Administrator Rod Storm this week told the Herald that the Cargill milling plant, built in the mid-1990s, brought plenty of truck traffic, but also that it’s brought a lot of economic development. And he said the smell of the plant doesn’t concern him.

“I grew up on the farm, and I opened sacks of feed. And when I get that smell, it’s the same smell I got when I opened that sack of feed in the feed yards back home on the farm,” he said. “To me, it’s not a (bad) smell. I can tell you there’s other people that if they get that, it is a smell to them. But we get so little of it here from the plant, the weather conditions have to be just right.”

RELATED: Grand Forks leaders visit Iowa, Nebraska for Fufeng Group insights

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And the smell might be even less strong in Grand Forks than in Blair. Lisa Botnen, the city’s assistant waterworks director, said the Cargill plant has its own wastewater treatment processes, which include open-air lagoons. That won’t be the case in Grand Forks, she said — and she agreed with Feland when he said the facility had a faint smell of cornflakes, based on her own experience with city leaders in Nebraska.

“It was cold and we had the windows down and everybody was kind of sniffing as much as they could,” she recalled with a laugh.

Council member Bret Weber made a visit to Blair with other Grand Forks leaders last month. He said he didn’t smell any sulfur at the plant, or in Fort Dodge, Iowa, where he visited another corn-milling facility. He places his faith in the state institutions that will review and process permitting for the plant, monitoring effects on the air and the environment.

“We have to have some trust in those institutions,” Weber said. “The (steam) plumes I saw in Nebraska and Iowa were very similar to the plume that I see over (American) Crystal Sugar (in East Grand Forks).”

Grand Forks residents might be forgiven for some skepticism, though. During the summer of 2020, Red River Biorefinery’s “high-strength” wastewater discharges left a lingering stink across the city, linking the city’s agribusiness sector to a notable risk for foul odor.

RELATED: Odor in Grand Forks could be biorefinery waste, city official says

Melanie Parvey, Grand Forks’ water works director, said that’s unlikely to happen again, since the Red River Biorefinery incident occurred when the wastewater treatment plant was overwhelmed and had to divert some wastewater to outdoor lagoons. Right now, the city is planning tens of millions of dollars in wastewater treatment upgrades that Parvey said will give Grand Forks the resources to adequately handle Fufeng Group’s new plant.

Some observers are also worried about what the plant means for the environment. Dexter Perkins, a geologist at UND, expressed his concerns that the new factory will add to CO2 emissions and contribute to climate change.

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“All the experts say we need to stop burning fossil fuels, we need to decrease carbon dioxide emissions,” Perkins said. “And here the city of Grand Forks is saying, ‘no, we're going to go the other way.’”

Eric Chutorash, the COO of Fufeng USA — the American subsidiary behind the plant — did not respond before the Herald’s deadline to an email asking about traffic, odor and emissions related to the new facility, or a subsequent call and text message seeking comment.

The new plant’s natural gas consumption is expected to be significant. The state has provided $10 million to link Grand Forks to gas supplies, part of $150 million that will also help build a natural gas pipeline spanning the state.

RELATED: North Dakota leaders eye trans-state natural gas pipeline with federal coronavirus aid money

Weber said he’d much rather see natural gas used in value-added agricultural processes in Grand Forks than flared in western North Dakota’s oil fields. He believes the plant plays an important role in the city’s future, giving the economy an enormous boost that will help bring even more jobs in the years ahead.

“Some of the most common complaints I get about Grand Forks are that wages are too low, we need more economic development and more retail. And you don’t get those things without this kind of development,” he said. “This is an important way to address what I’m hearing (are) some of the main concerns of the taxpayers of Grand Forks.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was corrected to clarify the state's expenditures on natural gas resources.

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