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Underground Works: Danville geologist Mark Howell gives environmental expertise for areas beneath the ground, behind walls or inside structures

Danville’s Mark Howell works professionally as a geologist, using tools to provide environmental expertise to law firms, property owners and industrial facilities. (Photo by Jessica Todd)

By Jessica Todd

Danville professional geologist Mark Howell spends his time in a cozy office working on his computer. But it’s the things he does underground that make him unique. 

“If you came into my office, I look like any other person who works every day. I can usually be found sitting on my computer going over the environmental aspect of my job,” he said. “My geophysical work has taken me all over the country. I spend days to weeks in places like fields or mountains acquiring data.”

Howell’s former coworker Brian Mott has known him for about 25 years. 

“Mark has always been a competent scientist, one of the best in his area of practice, in my opinion,” Mott said. “Mark makes a genuine effort to educate and explain the data derived from his explorations at a level that his audience can understand.”

Mott and colleagues use Howell at the beginning of their projects to choose geophysical methods best suited for their explorations. But it was the travel between jobs that stood out to Mott. 

“He was an internationally ranked Japanese archer. He travels quite a bit in and outside of work and appreciates the beauty of the natural world,” said Mott. “It is not unusual to get a selfie with a llama from Machu Picchu or just his feet in the sand on the coast of Wales. He has a witty, dry sense of sarcastic humor.”

From a young age, he was fascinated with nature and the outdoors. Coupled with a particular interest in maps and trying to find where they lead to in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, the road eventually led to Wright State University where he earned his master’s degree in geology. Throughout his college career, he taught geologic mapping in the Smoky Mountains, led field trips for Sinclair Community College and spent 10 weeks mapping in the mountains of West Virginia  for his thesis. 

Two decades ago, Howell moved to Danville in 2001 to have a fresh start and find somewhere that felt like home.

“I had moved out of a suburban area. I wanted to venture into a smaller town,” said Howell.

Though Howell lives in the Midwest and does most of his work in Illinois and Ohio, his work has taken him as far as Baltimore, Camp Pendleton, Calif; Slidell, La., and the Aleutian Peninsula in Alaska. 

His day-to-day routine in Danville involves working on his computer and communicating with businesses about industrial projects.

“On the computer is where I analyze forms and raw files,” he said. “I provide environmental expertise to law firms, property owners and industrial facilities.”

His geophysical work gets him out in the field. 

“These industrial projects revolve around me working with tunnels, dams, bridges, roadways and more,” said Howell. “These projects are used to map what we cannot see beneath our feet, behind walls or inside concrete structures.”

One of the most interesting places his work has taken him was Alaska. 

“In Alaska, I did a seismic survey to help locate additional water supplies for a salmon cannery.

We worked in a stream valley below a volcanic peak,” said Howell. “Trout filled the streams — they were everywhere, making splashing sounds like your hand in bathwater. Each morning the ground was freshly littered with fish shards from the feeding bears. We had to walk through narrow clearings in the alders every morning, and luckily never surprised a bear. They treated traffic cones as chew toys.” 

Last year, Howell worked in the Hudson Valley in New York to map bedrock along an electric transmission line.

“The animals of concern were environmentally-protected bog turtles,” Howell said. “I covered 30 miles, walking up and down the hills and through the bogs. While drilling rigs could not get access through the protected habitat, I was able to get my client the information they needed by getting seismic measurements on foot.”

In Cincinnati, Ohio, Howell mapped a historical cemetery for a client who wanted to build a school but suspected there might be burials there. 

“Using radar, I was able to make a map of what was beneath the ground. It looked like a dozen coffins of the Old West style, but I wasn’t convinced because they seemed too shallow,” said Howell. 

His client said if the burials all pointed in the same direction, which they did all point eastward, Howell had found a burial plot.

The work isn’t limited to known or suspected underground discoveries.

“I have also used radar to help with archaeological and missing person explorations,” he said. 

Each of Howell’s excursions involve detailed work. He has an eye for things that others may not understand, but he loves what he does and the places it takes him. 

“My projects are all diverse, and that’s what I love about my job,” he said. 

Get to know Mark Howell:

  1. What is your favorite local business? Danville Dips on the Square
  2. Where is your favorite travel spot? I would love to go back to Japan. It is clean and modern and everyone is so friendly.
  3. What is the best part of your job? I love exploring. The geophysical work always shows something that is unexpected.
  4. What are you reading right now? I just read Hemingway’s “The Sun Always Rises” for the second time, and I really enjoyed it.
  5. What is your favorite animal? We have a cat, but my favorite animal is probably a dog.

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