Since the federal government can extend the deadlines for cities to meet clean-air standards and for Detroit to produce fewer gas guzzlers, shouldn't it also extend deadlines for school districts to inspect their facilities for asbestos?

Plenty of school administrators think so. Across the nation many local districts despair over meeting an Oct. 12 date by which they are supposed to identify buildings with crumbling asbestos and submit a maintenance or cleanup plan. They could face fines of $5,000 a day if they fail.It's not that districts don't want to abide by federal law. There simply may not be enough qualified people around to conduct the inspections in time, let alone begin whatever cleanup may be needed. Then there is the financial wallop to consider: up to $200,000 just for an inspection and maintenance plan.

An irony is that the crisis was entirely predictable and is due in part to the intransigence of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA issued its asbestos inspection rules last Oct. 20, trumpeting them at the time as a "tough" solution to the asbestos hazard. Indeed they were: tough, unrealistic, and irresponsible.

Federal officials should have known what a difficult, costly burden they were dumping on resource-strapped local districts. They also should have known that a one-year deadline virtually guaranteed hastily arranged inspections at inflated prices.

The rules failed to establish the level of airborne asbestos requiring remedial action. The EPA simply refused to set a standard. Precise measurement of airborne asbestos is required only after the cleanup, not before.

As a result, Scripps Howard News Service reports, visual inspections are the rule. School officials rely in part on the opinion of approved private contractors and other experts, whose interest may be served by exaggerating the threat and hence the scope of necessary cleanup.

As one critic noted last fall, EPA's rules could "drive schools toward unnecessary removals of asbestos-containing materials, increase exposures to building occupants, and spark a future wave of asbestos-related disease among abatement workers (whom everyone acknowledges are most at risk)."

Congress should require that the rules be revised.