The Thomas W. Sullivan Plant in Oregon is one of the more famous hydroelectric generating stations in the United States. Opened in 1895, this facility caused an immediate sensation as it was the first such facility west of the Mississippi River. Today the station, owned and operated by Portland General Electric, is still in service and is being considered for placement in the National Register of Historic Places.
The falls of the Willamette River south of Portland were about 40 ft. high, making it an obvious spot for a hydroelectric facility. Generators from a sawmill in Portland were brought to the site in 1889 and a 14-mile transmission line gave the city its first taste of public electricity. In 1895 a second station was built and eventually replaced the experimental sawmill generator. This second unit would soon be used to turn a number of turbines and would produce over 16 megawatts of electricity. In 1953 the plant was renamed for Thomas W. Sullivan, the engineer for PGE who designed the power plant over a half century earlier.
In 2004 PGE signed agreements with governmental agencies allowing another 20-year license for the facility, providing a continued involvement in environmental responsibility is maintained. The company has since installed an entirely new gated flow control apparatus at Willamette Falls to help smolt and other small fish in their migratory journeys past the generating station. The design features a concrete and rubber ramp system that guides fish to the deepest water near the falls and directs them to the bypass area.
Today the Thomas W. Sullivan Plant produces enough electricity to power about 11,000 homes. There are a total of 13 operating turbines that power the electromagnetic generators at the station, and about 122 million kilowatt-hours of electric current are generated in a typical year. The station was a first ballot inductee into the Hydropower Hall of Fame.
Although the Thomas W. Sullivan Plant is and always was a hydropower facility, asbestos was likely used during its construction and to protect workers and inner construction of the power station from the high voltage produced. Asbestos was used to coat wires, make panels and ceiling tiles, and made into protection for the coverings on electrical breakers.
Employees who were exposed to asbestos fibers on a daily basis often inhaled these lightweight, airborne particles. They also carried them home in their hair or shoes, spreading these silicate fibers to their own household members. Asbestos causes a number of illnesses, including mesothelioma and asbestosis and sometimes the symptoms of these diseases are not detected for years after exposure to asbestos.