Burgum sends letter to federal agencies, supporting a review of Fufeng project 'with the utmost urgency'
Also in recent days, CNN has reported that equipment placed at sites in the U.S. by the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei has raised concern by the FBI. The city administrator, however, counters that the Huawei issue is much different since it's a telecommunications company, and not an agribusiness.
GRAND FORKS — Gov. Doug Burgum has joined those who seek a federal review of a proposed corn mill in Grand Forks, urging that the process be completed “with the utmost urgency.”
The letter was sent by the governor to Lloyd Austin, U.S. secretary of defense, and Janet Yellen, secretary of the U.S. Department of Treasury.
Burgum is the latest to join in calls for the review of the project, headed by Fufeng Group, a China-based company that has purchased land along the north edge of Grand Forks. Earlier, North Dakota Republican Sens. Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven formally requested a review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, also known as CFIUS. They were joined in that request by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida.
At issue is growing concern about the project’s potential impact to national security, considering its proximity to Grand Forks Air Force Base and its possible influence on the nation’s food supply chain.
“In doing its due diligence on this project, the city of Grand Forks has encouraged Fufeng Group to make a voluntary CFIUS filing, and according to a published report, the company has agreed to do so,” Burgum said. “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.”
On July 14, Hoeven and Cramer sent a letter to Austin and Yellen requesting federal review of the project.
“This property is approximately 12 miles from Grand Forks Air Force Base, which has led to concern that Fufeng operations could provide cover for (People’s Republic of China) surveillance or interference with the missions located at that installation, given Fufeng Group’s reported ties to the Chinese Communist Party,” the senators wrote, requesting a full review by CFIUS. Rubio also signed the letter.
Grand Forks City Administrator Todd Feland reaffirmed that Fufeng Group has agreed to the CFIUS review and as of Monday morning has submitted information to CFIUS. Feland said expediting the review would also mean getting answers a lot sooner.
“The understanding is that there is a 30- to 45-day period time for review and then we’ll get an answer of whether they qualify under CFIUS or not and if they do, there will be a described process that they’ll move forward with,” Feland said. “So at least we’re going to get some initial answers coming sooner rather than later.”
Feland said the city is still working on the other due diligence items, including the development agreement and various environmental studies in parallel with that CFIUS review.
Fufeng has stirred controversy as opponents have been critical of the Chinese-owned company’s background and are concerned about potential national security threats.
Most recently, a recent CNN report outlined an FBI investigation that determined that equipment placed on cell towers in the Midwest by the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei is capable of disrupting Department of Defense communications.
Feland said there are stark differences between Fufeng Group, which hopes to build a wet corn mill plant, and the telecommunications company.
“That’s a totally different aspect than we're talking with this wet corn mill,” Feland said. “Huawei, that’s an equivalent to our Verizon or something that would have communication links throughout the country and integrating all of our various networks. Certainly, a wet corn mill in Grand Forks, North Dakota, is not even within that economic industry of where Huawei is working.”
Earlier this summer, top city leaders hosted a briefing from FBI representatives to discuss Fufeng Group. In that meeting, Feland said, the FBI representatives not only talked about Chinese investment in the U.S., but also about being situationally aware.
“Making sure you’re careful, you’re thoughtful, that you’re not being used at a local level and that you’re having appropriate safeguards,” Feland said.
New criticism has emerged, too. At a recent city meeting, an audience member decried what she said are used parts — being brought in from out-of-state projects — that allegedly will be used to build the Fufeng facility in Grand Forks. It's a concern that has been discussed with Herald staff members outside of public meetings, as well.
Feland said he knows from representatives with Fufeng Group that they have shipped in some parts from some other facility or facilities and that Fufeng Group “may or may not consider using as part of the construction of this facility.”
“I think the important note on that is all of the equipment will be reviewed whether it’s new or existing as part of the development from a building inspection perspective before we allow it to move into final design and service,” Feland said.
Cramer, notably, has been critical in recent weeks. On an appearance late last week on Fox and Friends, he was asked if he is concerned "about either espionage or interference" if the Fufeng plant moves forward.
“I am worried about it because China has proven themselves to be both capable and more than willing to steal intellectual property, to intercept the data, and they’re very good at it," Cramer said. "Grand Forks is not only an important (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) base, it’s a reconnaissance wing that flies Global Hawks. We recently cut the ribbon on a new satellite ground station for low Earth-orbiting satellites that will soon be providing communications in the sky. The future of the Grand Forks Air Force Base is … the next generation of ISR flying vehicle – unmanned aerial systems. So it’s a very important base.”
Cramer said he also has concerns about Chinese investment in the U.S. food supply chain.
"I'm just not very comfortable with the Chinese Communist Party controlling so much of our supply chains," he said.
Cramer, during the national TV interview, was complimentary to the community of Grand Forks for putting in "guardrails and clawbacks" and said he is confident that "at the end, we’ll have a unified community that supports the final decision.”