Mollie Michel of South Philadelphia keeps her children inside some days because of air pollution, so she's particularly irked by a long delay by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to say officially whether Philadelphia has a smog problem. That designation could mean more regulation to help clean up the dirty air, she said.

"You have a city with a childhood asthma rate twice as high as the national average,"  Michel said to bolster her argument.  A member of Moms Clean Air Force, she gathered Tuesday with a few dozen other activists and local officials at City Hall to mark the first day of spring by protesting Trump administration policies.

Mollie Michel, member of Moms Clean Air Force and a South Philadelphia mother of two, speaks at a rally organized by PennEnvironment Tuesday at City Hall.
Frank Kummer
Mollie Michel, member of Moms Clean Air Force and a South Philadelphia mother of two, speaks at a rally organized by PennEnvironment Tuesday at City Hall.

Whether Philadelphia is violating the federal Clean Air Act remains in bureaucratic limbo.  Despite deadlines, the EPA has refused to say whether Philadelphia and some other cities, including Pittsburgh, have met a 2015 benchmark of  70 parts per billion or less of ground-level ozone in the ambient atmosphere. Being out of compliance, or in "nonattainment," has a real-world impact on the state, city, businesses and industry, and even motorists through increased regulation and funding.

The EPA was supposed to state whether Philadelphia was in compliance by last Oct. 1.   Last week, a federal court ruled that the EPA, under its administrator, Scott Pruitt, broke the law by missing the deadline, and gave the EPA until April.

On Monday, Pruitt's office said it would meet the deadline.

Pruitt said during a meeting with reporters at EPA headquarters in Washington that the scope of monitoring required to answer the smog question had caused the delay.

"The agency has been running behind for a number of years," said Pruitt, who took office a year ago.

Pruitt, who said he didn't have data specific to Philadelphia in front of him, also took issue with how the monitoring program has been carried out in the past, saving money by "modeling" — using data from one area and applying it to another.

"Real data is terribly important," Pruitt said. "When we go forward, we need to focus more on monitoring as opposed to modeling … You shouldn't get data from one monitor and extrapolate it over a whole area because you're not dealing with real data at that point."

He said his office is "exploring ways" to pay for monitoring.

If Philadelphia is declared to have a smog problem,  the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection would be responsible for crafting a plan to reduce ground-level ozone. Ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides — created by burning fossil fuels, and power plants and other industries — combine in sunlight.  Long, hot, humid days act as smog factories, so smog is expected to increase as the climate warms up.

James Garrow, a spokesman for the city's Department of Public Health, said, "Philadelphia is indeed out of compliance" as of March 1.  He said the trend for ground-level ozone has been going down for years and Philadelphia expects to meet requirements within a few years.

At the protest, Flora Cardoni, an organizer with PennEnvironment, joined Democratic State Reps. James R. Roebuck Jr. and Brian K. Sims, as well as members of Deep Green Philly and the Clean Air Council, in speaking out. Cardoni said it's already been too long a wait for action.

"Philadelphians want to walk along the Schuylkill, play in Fairmount Park, and wander the historic city without worrying about choking on smog and soot," she said.