Breaking Ground: Leech receives national award for doctoral dissertation


Professor Brian Leech (right) discusses the Great Society with a student group during his HIST-132 class. Photo by Cam Best.

Professor Brian Leech (right) discusses the Great Society with a student group during his HIST-132 class.  Photo by Cam Best.
Professor Brian Leech (right) discusses the Great Society with a student group during his HIST-132 class.
Photo by Cam Best.

Brian Leech, Ph.D., professor of History, is determined to educate the public about the history and environmental effects of pit mining, even though he said it is an easily overlooked practice.
“I like to take history in a different direction from what people often think of history, such as politics and things like that,” Leech said.
“I am interested more on people’s use of nature, and mining, and timber and stuff like that. I think they are important and sometimes they are overlooked.”
Leech recently won a $1,000 national prize for the Best Doctoral Dissertation in Western History that he will accept in Newport Beach, Calif. at a conference in October.
His paper, “The City that Ate Itself: a Social and Environmental History of Open-Pit Mining in Butte, Montana,” was completed in 2013 and focuses on Berkeley Pit, a major pit copper mine, which opened in 1955 in Butte, Mont.
Today the pit is 1.5 miles wide east-to-west and one mile north-to-south. It is filled with toxic water and is one the “Federal Superfund List of Contaminated Sites.”
“My story is about how as this massive mine expands they have to relocate more and more people,” said Leech who wrote about the surrounding cities that were devoured by the pit.
Leech also makes a point in his paper that the pit’s transition and expansion devalued the workers in the underground mines.
Leech said that unlike some other environmental changes, mining has very obvious dramatic evidence on our planet, while things such as climate change can be hard to immediately recognize.
However, for some reason the effects of mining are often overlooked, Leech said.
Leech said he grew up about an hour and a half away from the pit. He visited a mine for the first time in fourth grade on a school field trip.
“I was kind of fascinated from the beginning,” Leech said. “It was a great experience because most people don’t get this type of an experience at such a young age.”
Leech’s colleague, Todd Cleveland, Ph.D., has similar passions about mining. He recently wrote a book recognized by the Wall Street Journal, “Stones of Contention: A History of Africa’s Diamonds.”
In the book, Cleveland brings attention to  diamond mining in Africa and tells about the history of diamond mining from ancient times to the present.
“American’s are woefully oblivious of the minerals, with the possible exception of diamonds which come from Africa that they use or benefit from in their everyday lives,” Cleveland said.
“The best example would those that are used in our cellphones, many of which derive from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Leech said it’s a unique opportunity to have colleagues and professors who do such great research, and that the awards help connect teachings.
“Mining is really interesting because there are all these things that we consume every day that are entirely dependent on underground mining.” said Leech, who hopes to connect his classes to the outside word through his research.
“We devote a lot of time and energy to our research and we really value it and we love to talk to students about it and bring attention to it.”
The 2013 Phi Alpha Theta/Westerners International Prize for the Best Doctoral Dissertation in Western History award  is administered annually and gives it to the member of Phi Alpha Theta, the National History Honors Society, who completed what they deem to be the best doctoral dissertation on the history of the American West.