Sources said the president could ask Attorney General John Ashcroft to seek an order from the U.S. District Court in San Francisco halting the lockout as early as this afternoon.

On Monday, the president created a three-member board of inquiry to study the economic impact of the lockout and the positions of the two parties involved – the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shippers and terminal operators.

The board of inquiry was seen as the first step in a move to invoke the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act to end the lockout that may be costing the U.S. economy $2 billion a day as commodities ranging from almonds to wheat back up through the pipeline as far away as the Midwest.

The president dispatched a federal mediator to try to help the parties resolve their dispute last Friday, but the talks broke down Sunday night. On Monday, the president, who until then had seemed reluctant to intervene in the dispute, created the board of inquiry.

The president was expected to decide on seeking the injunction after receiving the board of inquiry’s report at the White House this morning.

Last week, 69 farm organizations wrote the president asking him to intervene in the dispute and end the shutdown, which they said threatens the already faltering farm economy.

Grain reportedly was backing up in elevators and in warehouses in the Pacific Northwest, according to representatives of the National Corn Growers Association.

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe, a major rail carrier to and from West Coast ports, declared an embargo on new rail shipments from inland producers to Pacific Northwest export docks.

"This could not come at a worse time as the 2002 harvest gets underway," said Hayden Milberg, the NCGA’s director of public policy. "This will place added pressure to an already stressed and congested grain transportation system."

U.S. agriculture products are exported from the West Coast to Asia, South and Central America and the Caribbean. The Pacific Rim accounts for approximately one-third of U.S. farm shipments abroad. Asian countries represent five out of 10 of U.S. agriculture's top exporters.

"U.S. agriculture is facing tremendous economic loss due to the continual shutdown of West Coast ports," said Milberg. "Unfortunately the impact of not having the ability to ship products abroad will also have damaging affects on our country's domestic market."

NCGA and the other letter signatories said that if the shutdown is to continue agriculture commodities and products meant for export will have to be absorbed in the U.S. market, which will negatively impact U.S. farm prices.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com