SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The U.S. Forest Service is not required to disclose the identities of employees who responded to a 2003 wildfire near Idaho’s Salmon River that killed two Forest Service workers, a 9th Circuit panel ruled.
The court dismissed a complaint filed by the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a public watchdog group that sought a copy of the Forest Service’s investigation of the deaths of firefighters Shane Heath and Jeff Allen, who died while fighting the Cramer Fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
Three other federal agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, conducted similar investigations and criticized the Forest Service’s response to the fire. The OSHA issued several citations against the agency for creating dangerous working conditions. By the Forest Service’s own account, management failings had contributed to the deaths.
The Forest Service said it disciplined six employees involved in the fire, but withheld their names and identifying information due to privacy concerns.
The appellate court upheld the agency’s decision, saying disclosure could cause “embarrassment, shame, stigma and harassment” for anyone associated with the tragedy.
The court also appeared skeptical that the plaintiff needed the information to launch its own investigation. The only new information that the group could exhume after four full investigations was the identities of the Forest Service employees, whom the group said it plans to contact. This stated purpose does not justify disclosure, the court ruled.
It concluded that releasing the information would not “appreciably further the public’s interest in monitoring the agency’s performance during that tragic event.”