A man who lost an estimated £165m of cryptocurrency thrown into a landfill by mistake has unveiled his latest plan to try and get the money back.
“I’ve tried for 10 years to be nice, now we need to go to battle”, James Howells explains as he outlines the next step in his fight with a council to find the hard drive that houses the digital fortune.
The IT systems engineer has spent a decade trying to convince Newport City Council to help him search for the device that was accidentally thrown away in 2013, but it has repeatedly refused to allow him access to the site.
So in a last roll of the dice, the 37-year-old has retained a legal team who have written to the local authority this week asking for legal access to the site. If successful, he hopes to employ mechanical arms powered by AI (artificial intelligence) to sift through the site to find the drive.
The bizarre saga started in 2013 when Mr Howells, put the hardware from an old laptop that contained 8,000 bitcoins, the world’s leading cryptocurrency, in a black bag in his hallway.
“I was doing a clear-out in my office and put a lot of items into a bag which I then placed at the front door of my house,” he said. “I woke up the next morning and my ex-partner had already taken the bags to the landfill site; she thought she was doing me a favour, it wasn’t her fault.”
After the unintentional error, the cryptocurrency expert hatched a plan to get back his lost millions by getting together a crack team of environmental health and data recovery experts.
As part of the plan, his team would utilise AI to operate a mechanical arm in sorting the mounds of rubbish. Each piece of detritus would then be sifted through by hand in a nearby pop-up tent.
Security had been considered by the IT systems engineer who wanted to utilise robot dogs to make sure opportunistic thieves could not steal his discarded hard drive.
But despite his schemes, there remains a stumbling block. The local council refuses to give permission to access the landfill site, despite Mr Howells saying he would cover any costs related to the search.
“Over the last 10 years I’ve always tried to engage with Newport City Council in a businesslike manner, they are the site owner, they are the operator, they own the permit for the landfill, so I’ve always wanted to be friends with them and work with them,” he said.
“And to do that I’ve always tried to build a bigger, better team to try and impress them and finally engage with me.”
However, his requests to meet with the council’s senior leadership were not successful, so he has now taken the next step in his fight and retained a legal team.
If Mr Howells does manage to recover his lost millions, he wants to turn Newport into the UK’s first “crypto hub” and gift its 160,000 residents £50 in bitcoin each. A city council report in 2021 found that a quarter of areas in Newport were in the most deprived 10 per cent in Wales.
“The idea is then people will have to learn how to use bitcoin, and that will then help them themselves going forward in the future,” he said.
“We will also set up a blockchain education centre in Newport city centre which will be open with a five-year commitment where anybody can come in face to face and have a sit-down… it’s scary going on a phone to learn about crypto but if you have somebody face to face to teach you and show you to ropes, so to speak, it’ll be a little bit easier.”
He also wants to install crypto point-of-sale devices in all the independent stores in Newport, so the local community “can use the coins and we can get a crypto economy going in South Wales”.
Mr Howells’s legal team wrote to the council on 6 September asking for access to the site and it has two weeks to respond, before a possible escalation in the courts.
“Until the door is fully slammed shut by a court, then I will continue trying, as I have over the last 10 years ... the court is the last step for me, I am no longer asking Newport City Council for access, I am now going to be asking a judge for access.”
The price of bitcoin fluctuates but the value of Mr Howells’s coins at the time of writing was £165m.
A spokesperson for the authority said: “Newport City Council has been contacted multiple times since 2013 about the possibility of retrieving a piece of IT hardware said to contain bitcoins, which may or may not be in our landfill site.
“The council has told Mr Howells multiple times that excavation is not possible under our environmental permit, and that work of that nature would have a huge negative environmental impact on the surrounding area.
“The council is the only body authorised to carry out operations on the site.
“We have been very clear and consistent in our responses that we cannot assist Mr Howells in this matter. Our position has not changed.
“We will be offering no further comments on this issue as it takes up valuable officer time which could be spent on delivering services for the residents of Newport.”