As black smoke billowed from a massive fire at Pueblo’s EVRAZ steel mill, city officials issued an air quality shelter-in-place alert: “Go or stay inside, please shut your windows and turn off your air conditioner.” 

The alert came two weeks ago, on April 5. For the next 15 hours, residents were warned not to go outside because the air was so polluted with potentially toxic smoke that it was dangerous to breathe.

The following day, Pueblo Mayor Heather Graham joined Sheriff David J. Lucero to provide the public with updates on the status of both the fire itself and the air quality restrictions and closures implemented to protect residents from the smoke.

“At the EVRAZ fire, multiple buildings have collapsed and burned down,” said Graham. “As of right now it is contained, but we are asking the public to stay away from the area. We expect high winds coming in this afternoon and we might have a re-ignition of fire so please stay away from the area.

We’ll be lifting the shelter-in-place near EVRAZ. We do have an air advisory out for several areas in the city: Langoni Field, Runyon Field, and the two golf courses are closed for the rest of the day.”

Two weeks before the fire, Mayor Graham addressed her constituents in a different way, via a strongly-worded column in the Pueblo Chieftain. In it she argued that the state Legislature should not pass a pair of bills she claimed would hurt Pueblo’s manufacturing jobs. Both bills propose stricter industry regulations on local air quality. Part of Graham’s argument was that these bills are “often drafted by some of America’s most extreme environmental groups.” 

“Well-meaning but deeply uninformed legislative proposals, often drafted by some of America’s most extreme environmental groups, are every bit as threatening to the future of our city and southern Colorado as companies on the other side of the globe.”

Graham neglected to mention those responsible for drafting her own words: EVRAZ North America, which itself is owned by one of “those companies on the other side of the globe.” Evraz is a Russian firm based in London, controlled by oligarch Roman Abramovich, believed to be an ally of Vladimir Putin, who owns about 29% of the company.

“Good morning, Mayor! I am attaching a draft op-ed for your review and consideration.” So began an email, obtained via an open records request, from Annie Stefanec, EVRAZ North America Government Affairs Director to Graham. The op-ed, written by EVRAZ’s local lobbying firm, argued against proposed air quality bills SB24-166 and HB24-1338

“I am also looping in Sean Duffy, who did most of the heavy lifting on this draft,” wrote Stefanec in the email. “Sean will work with you and your team to finalize a draft and get in placed in the Denver Post.”

Duffy, who once served as Deputy Chief of Staff to former Governor Bill Owens, now works for The Kenney Group, EVRAZ’s public affairs firm.

In addition to authoring the op-ed, Mayor Graham participated in a March 20 press conference at the Capitol, in advance of the first hearing for the Air Quality Enforcement bill, SB166. Duffy drafted remarks for the mayor for that event as well.

Mayor Graham forwarded the email with the draft to a staff member with the following instructions: “Can you proof this and then send it to the paper for an op-ed?” 

Six days later the draft EVRAZ sent to Mayor Graham appeared (essentially word-for-word) in both the Denver Post and Pueblo Chieftain

“It is clear to me that the special interest groups that write these fatally flawed bills are passionate and sincere and that their sole focus is finding ways to increase environmental protections,” reads Graham’s op-ed.

Fire at EVRAZ steel mill burns on April 5. Photo: La Junta Fire Dept.