The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday warned 213 counties and the District of Columbia that they may lose millions of dollars in federal highway funds and face bans on certain kinds of industrial construction for violating the Clean Air Act.

Agency officials, who have been accused by critics of softening pollution regulations, said the tough federal law gives them no choice but to impose the sanctions although they view the punishments as "senseless" and counterproductive to the goal of cleaning up the nation's air.

The announcement brought the Reagan administration under heavy criticism from state officials, who said the move would disrupt their economies, and from Democrats in Congress who charged that the EPA has twisted the requirements of the act in hopes of building pressure on Congress to weaken it.

Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and a number of environmental groups argued that the law requires sanctions only if counties fail to carry out federally approved plans for controlling air pollution.

They said fewer than 50 counties come under this category.

"The present law is the law," EPA Assistant Administrator Kathleen M. Bennett said in announcing plans to impose sanctions.

"EPA's hands remain tied until the Clean Air Act is given the legislative action it has deserved for almost two years," she said.

Bennett said the EPA interprets the law to require a ban on certain kinds of construction in 111 counties where the air is too dirty to satisfy the act's national health standards for five major pollutants--sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen oxide and small particles.

The act set a Dec. 31, 1982, deadline for controlling these pollutants, and Congress, on the grounds that the sanctions are not mandatory, turned back administration efforts to extend it.

Bennett said she also believes the act forces the EPA to cut off federal highway funds for areas that failed to control car pollution and to cut a portion of aid to states whose counties failed to follow federally approved plans for cleaning up their air.

The EPA yesterday listed 33 counties in this category, but Bennett said the agency will not impose these sanctions until after the contruction prohibitions go into effect.

The construction ban will apply to any source of major pollutants that the 111 counties have failed to control, based on EPA monitoring data, Bennett said.

EPA officials said this will affect urban centers such as Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and Denver as well as remote areas such as Great Falls, Mont., and Grant County, N.M.

The federal law allowed states an extension until 1987 for cleaning up carbon monoxide and ozone--pollution caused mainly by automobiles--if they proposed plans for controlling emissions with programs such as car inspections.

The EPA announced approval of 11 such state plans, but rejected 17 others, which could result in sanctions against 101 counties and the District of Columbia. Of these, 32 were on the list of 111 counties charged with violating other standards.

EPA officials cautioned, however, that the sanctions may not be as sweeping as they sound. Some of the 17 states and the District have proposed revised pollution control programs that may be approved in the weeks before a ban could take effect, they said.

Maryland now faces sanctions for seven counties in the Baltimore and Washington areas--Montgomery, Prince Georges, Howard, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Harford--but may escape sanctions because auto inspection programs are to be put into effect there later this year, officials said.

The construction ban also is expected to have limited impact. Affected counties have 45 days to challenge the EPA's findings, and it will take the EPA several months to review the data, officials said. Construction permits can be approved in the meantime, giving local industries enough time to clear expansion plans for the next few years.

For this reason, several state officials said the EPA announcement had caused unnecessary unrest. Hart, charging that the sanctions are illegal, said he has asked the General Accounting Office to investigate the EPA's efforts to impose them.

David Hawkins, a former EPA official and now an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said many of the states being penalized have followed EPA-approved pollution control plans, and should be punished only if the plans are ignored.

"It's an ironic move for an administration that came into office pledging to work with the states," said Hawkins.