Ward Stone, Wildlife Coroner Who Warned Against PCBs, Dies at 84

Health & Wellbeing

Ward B. Stone, who as New York State’s maverick wildlife pathologist pleased environmentalists but angered his bosses and corporate polluters by going beyond his mandate to expose the dangers that PCBs and other toxic chemicals also posed to humans, died on Feb. 8 in Troy, N.Y. He was 84.

The apparent cause was respiratory failure, his daughter Montana Stone said.

During the nearly 42 years he was employed by the State Department of Environmental Conservation, Mr. Stone and his team performed thousands of necropsies on mammals ranging in size from mouse to moose, as well as on hawks, swans, deer, beavers and bears. The cause of death included accidents, illegal hunting, deliberate poisonings, and contamination by pesticides and other toxins.

But in the course of his forensic investigations, and also on his own, he sampled soil, landfill, ash and other residue and was one of the pioneers — along with Gunnar Widmark and Soren Jensen of the University of Stockholm and the biologist Robert Riseborough of the University of California, Berkeley — in finding evidence that polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were ubiquitous in the environment.

“In his position as state wildlife pathologist, Ward Stone shone a light on environmental threats long before others could notice them and gave a science-based voice to nature in times of crisis when few other state officials would listen,” Roger Downs, conservation director of the Sierra Club’s Atlantic chapter, said in a statement.

“His methods were sometimes unconventional,” Mr. Downs added, “but he always chose to pursue environmental justice first before pointless bureaucracy, and the natural world is a better place because of his fearless advocacy.”

Mr. Stone found PCBs at the base of utility poles and other sites; criticized fishermen for weighting their hooks with sinkers made of lead; and even discovered traces of the insecticide DDT on the grounds of one of his own department’s regional offices.

Two decades ago, at the height of the West Nile virus epidemic, which Mr. Stone had helped identify, his laboratory was being inundated with an average of 300 wildlife corpses every day. A stainless steel refrigerated mobile chest designed for dead people was adapted for large turtles.

Mr. Stone often ventured beyond his mandate as a pathologist and leaked his findings to the news media. This led some people to dismiss him as a brash, untutored interloper.

He enjoyed his reputation as a renegade. “I have been called a loose cannon,” he once said, “but I always know exactly where I am firing.”

But there were also other criticisms, which were substantiated in a report by the state inspector general.

In 2012, two years after Mr. Stone retired, the inspector general, responding to years of complaints from state employees and disclosures in The Times-Union of Albany, concluded that he had “engaged in chronic misconduct with near impunity, including abuse of staff, misappropriation of state resources and insubordination.”

The inquiry claimed that he had used the department’s Wildlife Resource Center in upstate Delmar as his residence; demoralized employees, who complained of verbal abuse and insufficient training in safety protocols; assigned them personal tasks, like caring for the chickens he kept as pets for his children; stored firearms at the center; and failed to submit records of the time he spent working for the state.

While he collected tens of thousands of dollars in improper personal benefits during nearly four decades as a state employee, the inspector general’s report found, he was merely warned and not officially disciplined, because department executives overruled his direct supervisors “in part out of fear of negative reactions from his supporters and the news media.”

Mr. Stone denied or downplayed most of the specific charges against him, although he did agree to make modest restitution. He said that he took early retirement because he had a family to support and the financial incentive was too tempting to refuse.

“I hate to retire under fire,” he told The Times Union in 2010. “There’s still so much science to do.”

Ward Byron Stone Jr. was born on Sept. 28, 1938, in Hudson, N.Y., to Ward and Nellie (Smith) Stone.

Raised in upstate Columbia County, he studied at the Spencertown Academy, a two-room schoolhouse, where he developed a passion for nature. He then attended the National Naval Medical School in Maryland and served in the Navy in Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

At Syracuse University, he served on the varsity debate team and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1963 and then a master’s degree in animal pathology and parasitology. He joined the Department of Environmental Conservation in 1969.

“While he loved pathology,” Montana Stone said of her father in a phone interview, “his love for life and living creatures was his true inspiration and motivation for continuing to rehabilitate wildlife of all types, and better understand diseases and toxins that inextricably affect humans, wildlife and the environment.”

Mr. Stone and his partner, the ecologist Mary Bayham, who lived in Troy, had five children. She survives him; in addition to their daughter Montana, he is also survived by their children Johnathan, Jeremiah and Ethan Alan Stone; two stepchildren, Thomas and Emily Caraco; and a daughter, Denise Stone, from his marriage to Lorraine Cebula. Mr. Stone and Ms. Bayham’s daughter Therese Rose Stone died before him.

“I’ve spent my life trying to do something about the terrible environmental destruction I saw, most of it done by industries with a lot of power,” Mr. Stone said in an interview with The Cobleskill Times-Journal in 2016. “I wasn’t popular, but I didn’t let that stop me.”

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