BISMARCK, N.D. — Gov. Doug Burgum is pressing federal officials to expedite a review of a Chinese company’s purchase of land in North Dakota for a wet corn milling plant to ensure it is not detrimental to national security.
Fufeng Group’s planned $700 million project in Grand Forks has stirred some opponents to raise fears of espionage due to its proximity to a U.S. Air Force base.
“Our top priority is, and always will be, the safety and security of our citizens and our nation,” Burgum, a Republican, said in a letter Monday to U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, calling for an expedited review of the project by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.
“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’s letter said.
The agency told The Associated Press that it does not publicly comment on its reviews.
City Administrator Todd Feland said the company, which is privately owned, voluntarily submitted a formal request Monday to have federal officials review the project.
‘They weren’t required to, but they did,” Feland said.
The city and the company continue to be 100% behind the project, even with growing opposition and suspicion toward it, he said.
“I think we’re caught into this nationwide rhetoric about concerns about the Chinese and what they may be doing, and we’ve become a symbol of that,” Feland said.
City Council meetings have turned ugly in recent weeks, with people becoming “angry, loud and vile,” he said.
The issue has drawn people to the meetings from far outside the city and police officers now are in attendance because of threats to city officials, he said.
The governor’s letter was sent in support of a formal request made last week by North Dakota U.S. Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, and Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, all Republicans, for a federal review of the land purchase.
The Grand Forks City Council in February gave initial approval to the Chinese agribusiness for its proposed corn-milling facility that officials said could be the largest private sector investment in the community’s history.
Fufeng makes products for the animal nutrition, food and beverage, pharmaceutical, health and wellness, oil and gas, and other industries. It’s a leading producer of xanthan gum. The Grand Forks site would be its first U.S.-based manufacturing facility.
Burgum at the time endorsed the project and hailed it as a “huge opportunity for producers and workers in the Grand Forks area and our entire state.” He did not raise security concerns then.
Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki would not say if the governor still supports the project.
“The letter speaks for itself,” Nowatzki said Tuesday. “The governor still believes it’s a huge opportunity for North Dakota to have value-added agriculture. If there are security concerns that are brought to light, then that would change the project.”
The Chinese agribusiness picked an approximately 370-acre site in Grand Forks’ agri-business park last year. The facility is about 14 miles from the Air Force base, which primarily has an unmanned aircraft mission.
Feland said it was “curious” that the anti-Chinese sentiment has appeared and only recently. For decades, the University of North Dakota’s flight school based in Grand Forks has trained scores of Chinese pilots, including from Air China, which is based in Beijing.
The site also is farther away than an aircraft manufacturing facility in Grand Forks controlled by the Chinese government.
China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Co. Ltd. purchased Duluth, Minnesota-based Cirrus Aircraft in 2011. Cirrus employs several hundred people in Duluth and at its plant in Grand Forks. Duluth is home to a Minnesota Air National Guard fighter wing.
The sale was slowed to allow for federal authorities to determine if the deal involved any sensitive technology that could be detrimental to national security. Former Minnesota Congressman Chip Cravaack, who requested the review, said he was satisfied the sale received proper scrutiny.