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BP races to build funnel for leaking oil well

By Matthew Bigg

GOLDEN MEADOW, Louisiana (Reuters) - BP Plc raced against time on Monday to build a funnel to help contain a busted well that is gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico but the energy giant is unsure it will work.

The funnel is a 98-ton, 40-foot iron box that resembles a primitive space rocket with a hole on top to channel oil through a pipe from the sea floor to the surface where it can be collected on a barge.

BP has been under intense pressure from the U.S. government and public to contain a giant slick that threatens shipping, wildlife, beaches and one of the United States' most fertile fishing grounds.

In theory, the system should collect 85 percent of the oil rising from the sea floor, but BP has never deployed the structure at a depth of 5,000 feet and the company cannot guarantee it will function correctly.

Asked if he was confident it would work, BP spokesman John Curry said: "We sure hope so. If not we will keep trying other options until something does work. I think we have some great engineers and they have worked very hard."

The spill is a public relations nightmare for BP, and in an apparent bid to show how hard it is working to contain the slick the company opened the building facility at Golden Meadow, southern Louisiana, to journalists.

"Our goal is to get out as quickly as we can to minimize the impact to the environment," Curry said.

The company knows the precise location of the leak but working at great depths and in the dark on an innovative and heavy system presents severe technical challenges, not least because of the softness of the sea floor.

Wild Well Control, a company that specializes in controlling oil fires, started work on Monday, deploying a team of 25 working round-the-clock to weld the structure together and they are due to finish in the next two days, according to marine engineer Jason Holvey.

Once completed and tested it will be shipped to the site and lowered to the seabed using submersible robots.

Similar technology was used three times after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 but in much shallower water.

(Editing by Philip Barbara)