The Department of Agriculture is under new pressure from Capitol Hill to deal with an "alarming" number of complaints of racial discrimination against USDA employes and in USDA programs.

In two letters to Secretary Richard E. Lyng, the chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights called for a full-scale investigation of USDA programs in Arkansas and warned against retaliation against complaining bureaucrats.

Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) said his subcommittee is receiving "at an alarming rate" new complaints about "very serious race discrimination" in USDA employment practices and in program delivery.

"The alleged discriminatory acts are the rawest examples of the 'old fashioned' form of race discrimination; they are unlike the more subtle forms often identified in other federal departments and agencies," Edwards said.

Edwards said discrimination allegations by a black Soil Conservation Service employe in Arkansas, Walter White Jr. of Forrest City, were "so serious" that the Office of Advocacy and Enterprise (OAE) -- the department's compliance overseer -- should carry out a full civil rights review of USDA programs in the state.

A Soil Conservation Service team last week conducted a preliminary inquiry into White's complaints, but a departmental decision about a broader investigation is not expected until next week.

Edwards also demanded an "immediate" and "substantive" response to his February inquiries about the failure of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to comply with requirements to draft equal opportunity and civil rights enforcement programs.

APHIS proposed a three-year plan to reach compliance, but it was rejected by the OAE, which had been critical of APHIS during a program review last fall. The OAE has given APHIS one year to comply with the requirements.

Edwards raised new questions about a decision to fire Edith Thomas, the highest ranking black woman in the department's Extension Service. She had complained publicly that she had been barred from providing nutrition assistance to poor minority groups.

After she received a dismissal letter, Thomas was given a two-week reprieve to June 3 to prepare a response. She has charged that her firing was illegal because a series of discrimination complaints she had filed against USDA had not been resolved.

Edwards said that in light of the department's intention to fire Thomas, earlier assurances by Assistant Secretary John J. Franke Jr. that her job rights would be protected "were, at best, premature." Thomas, a PhD nutritionist, was a GM-14 earning $44,000 annually.

Another House panel, the civil service subcommittee chaired by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), also has asked Lyng to provide information on racial discrimination cases and on firings and involuntary dismissals at USDA. Schroeder asked for a response by May 20, but a subcommittee aide said the department had not answered as of Thursday.