LEXINGTON, Ky. — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stepped up his criticism of the Environmental Protection Agency Wednesday, claiming federal regulators have "declared war" on the coal industry and asserting it's time to rein in the agency.

McConnell, in a speech to the Kentucky Coal Association, said the EPA's regulatory decisions "defy logic." The Kentucky Republican accused the agency of "changing the rules in the middle of the game" with a burdensome permitting process designed to stymie the industry.

This, in turn, has put many Kentucky mining operations in limbo.

"What EPA is doing is outside the scope of its authority and the law, and it represents a fundamental departure from the permitting process as originally envisioned by Congress. And it's time for Congress to rein the EPA in," he said, drawing applause from the crowd.

The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but environmental groups came to its defense.

Lenny Kohm, campaign director for the environmental group Appalachian Voices, based in Boone, N.C., said the EPA has "declared war on pollution" that poses risks to human health and the environment.

"We as a nation are very interested in not passing on our debt ... to our children," Kohm said, "and it puzzles me that some politicians don't feel that it is as important to pass on a healthy and sustainable environment to those same children.

Doug Doerrfeld, a member of the environmental and social justice group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said McConnell's speech "shows how completely out of touch he is with both his constituents and science."

Recent EPA actions "will prevent the needless deaths and sickness of thousands of Kentuckians," Doerrfeld said. "EPA is doing exactly what Congress mandated when it created the federal agency."

McConnell has sponsored legislation that would require the EPA to move faster in granting federal permits needed to open coal mines. McConnell said the measure wouldn't hurt the environment but would spur regulators to "make a decision one way or the other."

"To keep job producers in limbo, endlessly, strikes me as very counterproductive," McConnell told reporters afterward.

In his speech, McConnell ramped up his attack on the agency created by President Richard Nixon and a Democratic-controlled Congress four decades ago. The EPA has come under increasing assault from resurgent congressional Republicans wanting to block it from controlling greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

The EPA and the Justice Department have been suing electric utilities to get them to install the latest technology to capture pollution-causing emissions from coal-fired power plants in an effort to bring the utilities in line with the Clean Air Act.

McConnell took aim at the EPA's permitting process, saying more mining applications have come under enhanced review. He said the intent is to "run out the clock," a strategy he said is backed by President Barack Obama's administration and fellow Washington Democrats.

Kohm cautioned political leaders to resist using strident language that could inflame passions in the coalfields.

"There have been a number of incidents of violence in coal country that we feel are a result of all of the overheated rhetoric by the coal industry representatives and even some of our elected officials," he said.

McConnell's comments come three months after he accused the Obama administration of pursuing a "backdoor means of shutting down coal mines."

Other Kentucky officials have also taken aim at the agency.

Early this year, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear criticized "Washington bureaucrats" for trying to impose "arbitrary and unreasonable regulations on the mining of coal. To them I say: 'Get off our backs!'"

Beshear is seeking a second term this year.

Both Beshear and his Republican opponent, state Senate President David Williams, have called for the EPA to ease restrictions that have made it difficult for coal companies to open new mountaintop mines or to expand existing ones.

McConnell said that EPA's efforts to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants would amount to a "backdoor national energy tax" that would hit consumers "every time you start your car or turn on a light bulb."

He noted that LG&E, a Kentucky utility, has proposed raising residential electric bills by about 19 percent by 2016 to pay for upgrading its coal-fired power plants to meet stricter federal environmental regulations.

"Of course the EPA's real goal here is not to see the Kentucky coal industry comply with its boatload of regulations and red tape," he said. "It's to see the Kentucky coal industry driven out of business altogether."

McConnell said the stakes are high for Kentucky, the nation's third-leading coal producer.

Coal production in Kentucky dipped in 2009, according to federal statistics. That year the state produced 107 million tons of coal, down from about 120 million tons in 2008, a decline of nearly 11 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration. U.S. coal production in 2009 totaled 1.07 billion tons, a decline of more than 8 percent from 2008.

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McConnell voiced support for wind and solar power, but said coal must be an "indispensable part" of the country's energy equation.

He said the EPA's intrusiveness in the coal sector reflects a broader strategy by Obama's administration to overregulate large sections of the economy, which he blamed for the nation's sluggish recovery from recession.

"You haven't been singled out for any special treatment," he told the coal group. "This is going on all across the country."

Associated Press Writer Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.