Gov. Doug Burgum says state will support, assist Grand Forks in finding another ag project
Burgum, and some other state leaders at the North Dakota Capitol, say it's best to move away from the Fufeng project after the Air Force declared it a national security threat.
GRAND FORKS — Gov. Doug Burgum on Tuesday said he agrees with stopping the proposed Fufeng Group corn mill from building near Grand Forks and said the state will support the city in finding another agribusiness project.
The governor was among a handful of state lawmakers who either issued statements or discussed the project with a Forum News Service reporter based at the state Capitol. The comments came in the wake of a letter sent to U.S. Sen. John Hoeven from Department of Air Force representative Andrew P. Hunter, who declared the Fufeng project “a significant threat to national security.”
Burgum, who has supported the project in the past, said the letter is enough to halt construction of the factory, which has ownership ties to China.
“As we said previously, our top priority is the security of our citizens and our nation. We joined with city leaders in asking the federal government for clarity on any national security implications related to the Fufeng project, and now we finally have that clarity,” Burgum said in a statement. “The U.S. Air Force has stated that its ‘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.’ Given these concerns, we support the decision by the city of Grand Forks to initiate steps to stop the project with Fufeng Group and will support the city in finding another partner for a corn milling operation.”
The Fufeng project was publicly announced in November 2021, but resulted in months of controversy as concerns grew about its ownership ties to China, environmental concerns — including water usage — and threats to national security, considering its proximity to Grand Forks Air Force Base.
When it was announced, the Herald reported it would likely result in more than 230 jobs at the plant , with another 500 more indirect jobs expected. The plant was to be a "wet corn milling” facility, owned by Fufeng Group Limited, and could consume as much as 25 million bushels of corn once it reached peak operations. Originally, it was expected to open in 2024 or 2025 on 370 acres just north of town.
By January 2022, opponents were filling seats at City Council meetings, urging the council to not follow through on the project .
Burgum originally called the Fufeng project a “huge opportunity” for farmers and workers in the region. In July, however, the governor joined others in seeking a federal review of the project . The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States eventually said it does not have jurisdiction in the matter.
“We ask that this review process be completed with the utmost urgency to aid Grand Forks officials in their decision-making process and provide clarity on whether this land purchase has national security implications,” Burgum wrote in his call for the federal review.
By August, some lawmakers were publicly saying they were against the project. U.S. Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, both of whom are Republicans from North Dakota, advised the city to move away from the Fufeng project . Other national lawmakers — particularly Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida — began questioning the project as well.
The letter from Hunter , however, appears to be the death knell for Fufeng's Grand Forks plans.
Hunter, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, stressed the Air Force’s stance on the China-based company.
“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.
It was the first official statement from the Air Force that showed concern about security issues. Members of the City Council told the Herald Tuesday that they don't see how the project can now move forward .
Tuesday, after Hunter declared the project a national security threat, Burgum said the state will help the city move on to other development opportunities.
“We appreciate (Grand Forks Mayor Brandon) Bochenski and city officials for their leadership and proactive due diligence throughout this lengthy and complex process,” Burgum said. “The state of North Dakota stands ready to assist the city in exploring additional opportunities for value-added agriculture. As our farmers who compete in global markets know, agriculture is a global business, and North Dakota welcomes investment from domestic companies and our friends and allies.”
Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, said he wishes the Air Force's position on Fufeng had been released months ago because it would have helped local leaders make decisions on the project.
He applauded the Air Force for "giving us a better idea of what we're up against," and noted that Hunter's letter is "an absolute game-changer" that should sink the project.
"National security is more important than economic development, in my opinion," Meyer said.
Meyer commended Bochenski's decision to back away from the project after learning of the Hunter letter. He also said he hopes the community will attract "value-added ag" enterprises that come with less baggage.
Rep. Steve Vetter, R-Grand Forks, said he was "never a big fan" of the Fufeng project because of the national security implications and the proposed plant's natural gas usage. If the Air Force's opposition deals a death blow to the project, Vetter said he is just fine with that.
Rep. Larry Klemin, a Bismarck Republican who proposed a bill to ban foreign governments from buying North Dakota agricultural land, said Grand Forks retracting its support for the project “sounds like a good result.”
The longtime lawmaker said his Fufeng-inspired legislation aims to prevent the nation’s adversaries, including China, from purchasing farmland in the future.