Spokesperson says Air Force held off on official Fufeng stance CFIUS assessed risk
Feb. 6—GRAND FORKS — The U.S. Department of the Air Force decided to hold off on an official stance on a controversial corn mill in Grand Forks until another agency assessed the proposed project's risks, according to an Air Force spokesperson.
The explanation comes as some wonder why it took so long before official word came from the federal level about the Fufeng corn mill project.
In November 2021, it was publicly announced that Fufeng Group — a company with Chinese ownership —
had chosen Grand Forks as its first U.S. site
for a wet corn mill plant. Since then, the project has sparked a lengthy debate as opponents raised concerns about annexation of the area around the plant, as well as concerns related to the environment and national security.
In August, Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer
told the Grand Forks Herald they were advising the city to move away
from the Fufeng project and "to find some other company to work with." They did not claim to be speaking on behalf of the Air Force, but they had called for the federal Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to look into the project.
CFIUS eventually did take it up, but in December determined it does not have jurisdiction in the case. The statement from the Department of the Air Force went public on Jan. 31, essentially ending the project's hopes of building in Grand Forks.
City officials, meanwhile, maintained they would move forward unless official word came that the project raised national security risks.
"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. (The Air Force determination) seems like a very clear official statement, so I will be voting no," City Council member Kyle Kvamme said last week. "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."
According to Rose Riley, a spokesperson for the Department of the Air Force, the department determined to issue a statement after CFIUS determined it didn't have jurisdiction.
"The Department of the Air Force deferred to the Department of the Treasury during the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States' review to assess potential risks associated with the proposed project," Riley said. "When CFIUS determined it did not have jurisdiction, the department made clear its views on the proposed project's significant threat to national security through direct correspondence with state officials."
Riley said the statement made last week "was a result of public announcements made by state and local officials regarding the contents of the letters."
U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., has voiced his concerns about the project in the past along with Sen. John Hoeven. In an interview with the Herald on Feb. 2, Cramer said the timing of the statement from the Air Force was not a "new decision," in his opinion.
"That was always their position," Cramer told the Herald. "I think the Air Force is two things: One, they are averse to local politics if they can avoid it. Some of that is just unnecessary political choppy waters. On the other hand, it's out of respect. Early on, they just thought 'let's let this work through the local process.' Then, by the time they were ready to weigh in, the CFIUS process began. You talk about something that needs to be reformed. That literally locked everybody down. They couldn't even talk to me."
In an interview with NewsMax in December, Cramer discussed his disappointment with the outcome of the CFIUS review.
Cramer told the Herald on Dec. 13 that he was seeking intelligence "directly from relevant agencies," though those agencies weren't named.
And last week, in an interview with the Herald, Cramer said the Air Force was "obligated" to issue a statement after CFIUS determined it didn't have jurisdiction.
"Once that (CFIUS) process was over and they made what I think was a wrong and certainly very narrow interpretation about their jurisdiction ... then the Air Force felt — not just felt, but was obligated to say something," he said. "It took a little longer to get there after that. But they needed to word it right and make sure it was clear without being disrespectful. And I do really mean that when I say 'respectful.' I think they wanted to avoid any embarrassment if they could. I hope people see it, in the end."
Following the Air Force's statement on Feb. 1, Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski told the Herald that there's frustration that the Air Force didn't make a statement sooner, but he's glad to have an official stance on the project.
"I think that's a frustration for the majority of people," he said. "I think it would have made things a lot easier to have that stance and I think going through the CFIUS, that may have tied their hands for a little while that was going on. But there were certainly many months prior to that. It would have been helpful, but in the end I think it's good that they did come forward with a statement so we've got an official stance."
Gov. Doug Burgum, in an interview with the Herald, said he feels the state's congressional delegates did their part in the process.
"Speed and clarity is a criticism of the federal process but not for the efforts of our congressional delegation," he said. "Sen. Cramer and Sen. Hoeven have been pushing and we have been supporting them to get these answers since early on in the process. They probably share that frustration."