Legislation offering grants to Bay region wastewater treatment plants that make upgrades using state-of-the-art nutrient control technology got a significant boost in July as both Pennsylvania senators signed onto the bill.

Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum joined their counterparts from Maryland and Virginia in sponsoring the Chesapeake Bay Nutrient Removal Assistance Act, which authorizes spending $660 million over five years to help nearly 290 wastewater treatment plants in the watershed slash nitrogen discharges.

“We think it’s great,” said Mike Hirshfield, vice president for resource protection with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which launched a grassroots lobbying effort to build support for the bill in Pennsylvania.

“Having Senators Specter and Santorum on board will be a big help,” he said. “Pennsylvania is the jurisdiction that has done the least on wastewater upgrades and obviously having federal funding would be a huge benefit for the commonwealth.”

While nitrogen discharges from wastewater treatment plants and other “point sources” decreased in both Maryland and Virginia from 1985 through 2000, they increased by 11 percent in Pennsylvania, according to Bay Program figures.

“If we are to protect the Chesapeake Bay, we must address the serious water quality issues that threaten the vitality of this great resource,” Santorum said. “This bill will provide critical resources to help prevent point source pollution, and will result in significantly improved water quality in the Bay itself.”

Under the legislation, plants could be reimbursed for up to 55 percent of the cost of “limit of technology” upgrades that maximize nitrogen removal from sewage. If all major wastewater treatment plants (those with daily discharges of 500,000 gallons or more) took advantage of the program, it would reduce nitrogen discharges by 46 million pounds a year.

Supporters say that would be a significant jump-start toward meeting the Bay Program’s new cleanup goals.

Preliminary estimates from the Bay Program suggest that the roughly 300 million pounds of nitrogen pumped into the Bay annually will need to be reduced by more than 100 million pounds to meet new water quality standards that will be set next year.

While the bill would authorize spending $660 million over five years, Congress would still have to appropriate the money each year for the grant program.

The bill was introduced in June by Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-MD and was co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-MD, Sen. John Warner, R-VA, and Sen. George Allen, R-VA.

The failure of the Pennsylvania senators to initially sign onto the legislation caused concern. The CBF urged members to write to the senators, while Pennsylvania members of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of the three Bay states, also urged support.

Not having the two Pennsylvania Republicans on board would have made the bill difficult to pass, much less win funding support from President Bush, said Paul Calamita, counsel to wastewater treatment plant associations in Virginia and Maryland. “Their silence would have been deafening.”

“It is going to be tough to get the bill authorized, and even tougher to get it appropriated given the budget climate that we are starting to see,” he said. “So it is going to take a full commitment to make it happen.”

A House version of the bill is expected to be introduced when Congress returns in September.