Longtime state wildlife pathologist fought many battles against pollution — and his bosses at the Department of Environmental Conservation
Updated: Feb. 10, 2023 11:22 a.m.
HUDSON —Ward Stone, the longtime state wildlife pathologist whose name became synonymous with environmental activism as he helped uncover and publicize the threat of PCBs, died Wednesday in Columbia Memorial Hospital after a battle with cancer. He was 84.
Mercurial in his personal life and media-savvy in his professional endeavors, Stone cut a wide swath in statewide and even national debates over PCBs, suspected carcinogens that were widely used in electronic equipment such as the capacitors that General Electric manufactured in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, Washington County.
“He was always a forward thinker,” said Lewis Oliver, Stone’s attorney and longtime friend.
Even after a series of strokes a decade ago and battling cancer, he remained engaged, Oliver said. He wrote letters to the editor advocating COVID-19 vaccinations at the height of the pandemic and even speculated about how trips to the International Space Station could help viruses mutate and evolve.
Stone earned acclaim as well as criticism for more than four decades of research into the natural world. He retired from the state Department of Environmental Conservation in 2010, months after a Times Union investigation of his conduct at the agency prompted a probe by the state Inspector General’s office.
To many, he was known as a go-to voice for explaining how wildlife is impacted by man through pollution, land development and other means.
“Ward believed that we are animals, and if other animals are affected by the environment it’s going to affect us,” Oliver said.
Stone grew up in the Hudson area raised by a single mom after his father, a World War II veteran, died of tuberculosis.
According to several friends, he spent much of his youth in the woods of Columbia County, hunting and fishing and exploring the area’s natural beauty.
After serving as a corpsman, similar to a medic, in the Navy on a hospital ship during the Vietnam War, he attended Syracuse University and ended up working at DEC.
He viewed his role as a pathologist as wide-ranging, helping to detect and publicize the PCB pollution in the Akwesasne area along the St. Lawrence River, and air emissions from downtown Albany’s ANSWERS trash incinerator.
“It was environmental justice before there was any such term,” remarked Fred LeBrun, a longtime Times Union columnist who accompanied Stone on outings — sometimes in the dead of night — to find PCBs or other pollutants that had been illicitly dumped in the woods.
LeBrun recalled tramping through a riverbank area of the Hudson to find where PCB waste from the GE plants in Washington County had been dumped by contractors.
Thanks to what became a long-running nature-themed call-in radio show on the regional public radio station WAMC and his quotability, Stone became a well-known and outspoken media figure on environmental issues.
“You did not have to ask him twice for a quote, and usually nobody could refute what he said,” LeBrun said.
Indeed, his facile way with the media got him on national talk shows such as those hosted by Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, according to his adopted daughter Denise Stone, who lives in Connecticut.
She recalled traveling to New York City as a young girl with her mother, Lorraine, to watch him talk about pollutants on one of the shows.
In keeping with his personality, she recalls it was more of a straight-ahead work trip for her dad rather than a family adventure.
“He was a scientist first and everything else second,” she said.
Stone would even bring injured and wounded animals such as squirrels or deer to their family home in East Berne and have Denise and her mother care for them. One of her earliest memories was of her mother bottle-feeding a baby groundhog.
In addition to highlighting the dangers of PCBs, Stone was instrumental in publicizing the risks of Mirex, an insecticide that had been dumped into Lake Ontario and was later banned.
The list of environmental battles he fought was extensive.
In the city of Albany, he oversaw emissions tests showing that the ANSWERS incinerator was spewing toxins. Located in the Sheridan Hollow area next to the city’s predominantly Black Arbor Hill neighborhood, the incinerator became a symbol of how disadvantaged communities were bearing a disproportionate burden of pollution. It was shut down in the mid-1980s.
Stone’s high profile, as well as the fact that his activities went well beyond the remit of wildlife pathology, rankled top management at his agency and at state government.
Several governors, including Mario Cuomo, tried to essentially shut him down by proposing funding cuts to his small wildlife unit, but those efforts drew loud protests from environmentalists.
“Ward was instrumental in holding the DEC accountable for all kinds of malfeasance and misfeasance,” recalled LeBrun, who cited their prior blind eye toward the problems that the ANSWERS plant had created.
“He was always at odds with his bosses,” he added.
Stone was far from perfect, though.
His personal life was complicated: He left his first wife and daughter Denise and essentially started another family. Denise Stone said she and her mom had little to no contact with him after his departure.
And Stone’s underlings in his pathology lab at the Five Rivers Environmental Center in Bethlehem long complained of abusive treatment.
Ultimately, those issues, along with what his allies cite as years of defying his bosses in state government, came back to bite him.
“People were out to get him,” said Denise Stone.
He retired in 2010 after 41 years. In 2012, was the subject of a scathing Inspector General’s report accusing him of abusing staff members, improperly using a state car, and other infractions.
He was also cited for living in the pathology lab — he had a cot in the facility — which was characterized as living rent-free with a value of $43,316.
The report acknowledged Stone’s ability to attract media attention, which served as a sword and shield in his battles with DEC managers.
When one former DEC commissioner, Peter Grannis, was asked why he tried to handle issues outside the customary disciplinary channels, Grannis was quoted as saying that Stone “has the ability to marshal press attention, media attention, community support.”
The IG’s report also cited how staffers had transferred out of his unit, filed complaints about him and alleged he forced them to chauffeur him to his WAMC radio show and to teaching engagements at The College of Saint Rose and SUNY Cobleskill.
Despite that report, Stone’s allies and fans stuck with him to the end.
While Denise Stone and her mother had little contact with him in recent years, both said his main focus was his work, which he viewed as a mission.
“It was not easy being married to him but I admired that he tried to protect the Earth,” said Lorraine Stone. “He really did — and for that, I had to be proud of him.”