The quest to find $181 million in bitcoin buried in a dump

The quest to find 1 million in bitcoin buried in a dump
The quest to find 1 million in bitcoin buried in a dump

A shimmering hard drive in a landfill

iStock; Rebecca Zisser/Insider

James Howells is known as the man who accidentally threw away 8,000 bitcoins. Now he has an $11 million master plan to get them back.

James Howell’s life changed when he threw out a hard drive the size of an iPhone 6.

Howells, from the south Wales town of Newport, had two identical portable hard drives in a drawer in 2013. One was empty; he says the other contained 8,000 bitcoins — now worth about $181 million, even after the recent crypto crash.

He had meant to throw out the empty one, but instead the drive containing the cryptocurrency ended up going to the local dump in a garbage bag.

Nine years later, he is determined to get back his stocks, which he ran out of in 2009.

Howells, 36, is hoping local authorities will let him stage a high-tech scavenger hunt for the buried bitcoins. His problem is that he can’t get into the dump.

A man stands and looks at the camera in front of a road and a metal fence.

James Howells hopes his plan will land him in the landfill.Darren Britton / Wales News

For nearly a decade, Newport City Council has refused his requests to dig for his hard drive, saying it would be expensive and environmentally damaging, but Howells is undeterred.

He gave Insider a first look at his new $11 million proposal — backed by venture capital funding — to search up to 110,000 tons of trash. He hopes his presentation to the council in the next few weeks will persuade it to let him finally try to recover the hard drive.

Finding a hard drive in 110,000 tons of trash

Searching for a hard drive among thousands of tons of junk can seem like a Herculean task.

But Howells, a former IT worker, says he believes it’s achievable through a combination of human sorters, robotic dogs and an artificial intelligence-powered machine trained to look for hard drives on a conveyor belt.

His plan has two versions, based on how much of the landfill the council would allow him to apply.

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By his estimate, the most extensive option would take three years and involve scouring 100,000 tons — or roughly 110,000 tons — of trash at a cost of $11 million. A scaled-down version would cost $6 million and take 18 months.

He has assembled a team of eight experts specializing in areas including AI-powered sorting, landfill digging, waste management and data mining – including a consultant who worked for a company that recovered data from the black box of the crashed space shuttle Columbia.

The experts and their companies will be contracted to perform the excavation and will receive a bonus if the bitcoin holdings are successfully retrieved.

“We are trying to achieve this project to a full commercial standard,” Howells said.

Howells said machines would dig up the trash, which would then be sorted at a pop-up facility near the landfill.

Human pickers would sift through it, along with a machine from an Oregon company called Max-AI. The machine will look like a scanner set over a conveyor belt.

Remi Le Grand of Max-AI told Insider that the company would train AI algorithms to detect hard drives similar to Howell’s. A mechanical arm would then pick out all objects that could be challengers.

Howells has built security costs into his plan, fearing that people might try to dig up the hard drive themselves.

He has budgeted for 24-hour CCTV cameras as well as two robotic “Spot” dogs from Boston Dynamics that will act as mobile CCTV patrols at night and sweep the area for anything that looks like his hard drive during the day.

A yellow square robot with a mechanical arm attached to its back stands on a stage in front of a purple backdrop that says

A “Spot” robot dog made by Boston Dynamics.Sam Barnes/Sportsfile for Collision via Getty Images

Howells told Insider that his team had its first meeting in May at the Celtic Manor Resort outside Newport for what he called a dress rehearsal of his pitch to the council.

The meeting was filmed and attended by former “Top Gear” host Richard Hammond, who has released a short YouTube documentary about Howells.

“They’re clearly a bunch of very committed people who have faith in him and the plan,” Hammond told Insider of Howell’s team.

“It’s a story that goes from the incredibly mundane to the colossal,” Hammond said. “If I were in his position, I don’t think I would have the strength to answer the door.”

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After excavation, the trash would be cleaned and as much as possible would be recycled, Howells said. The rest were to be reburied.

“We don’t want to harm the environment in any way,” he said. “If anything, we want to leave everything in a better state.”

An aerial view of a landfill, with turf over it.

Newport, Wales landfill from the air.Darren Britton / Wales News

His plans also include building either a solar or wind energy farm on top of the landfill once the project is complete. But the chances of the council agreeing to his vision anytime soon look slim.

“There is nothing that Mr. Howells could present to us” that would get the council to agree, a council representative told Insider. “His proposals pose a significant ecological risk, which we cannot accept and are in fact prevented from assessing by the terms of our permit.”

Will the hard drive even work if found?

Whether or not the hard drive will work depends on a component called a “disk” – a disk made of either glass or metal that holds the data. Howells says that as long as the platter is not cracked, there is an 80% to 90% chance that the data can be retrieved.

Phil Bridge, a data recovery professional who advised Howell on the project, told Insider that those numbers were accurate.

A close-up of an open hard drive held in two hands.

A hard drive the same size as the one Howells lost. The platter is the large plate in the middle.Darren Britton / Wales News

But if the plate is damaged, Bridge says, there’s only a slim chance the data can be retrieved.

Bridge says he got involved in the project because he thought it was exciting. “It’s just one of those cases that piques somebody’s interest,” he said. “It would just be an amazing success story to help him get it back and prove everyone really wrong.”

Where would the funding come from?

Hanspeter Jaberg and Karl Wendeborn, two venture capitalists based in Switzerland and Germany, respectively, told Insider they had pledged $11 million to fund the project if Howells won council approval.

“It’s obviously a needle in the haystack, and it’s a very, very high-risk investment,” Jaberg said.

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Howells said he had no contract with the potential backers but had discussed the plan in Zoom meetings. “Until I get something in writing from the Newport City Council,” he said, “there’s nothing to sign.”

What if he finds the bitcoin stash?

Howells said that if he managed to retrieve the data, he would keep about 30% of what’s there — worth just over $54 million in current value.

He said about a third would go to the recovery team, 30% to the investors, and the rest to local causes, including giving £50, or about $61 at current value, in bitcoin to each of Newport’s 150,000 residents.

The amount has dropped from $240 each, he told CNN in January 2021; Howells said he decided to spend more money securing “professional companies” for the excavation to convince the council.

What if the council doesn’t go along with his plans?

If Howells fails to get the council’s support, he says, his last resort will be to take the local authority to court, claiming their actions amount to an “illegal embargo” on the hard drive. “I’ve been reluctant to go down that route in the past because I haven’t wanted to cause trouble,” he said. “I wanted to work with the Newport City Council.”

Howells said he had never had a face-to-face meeting with the council. He said he was given a 20-minute Zoom meeting in May 2021, but hoped his new business plan would help him break through.

He said he met his local MP, Jessica Morden, on June 24. Morden’s office confirmed that the meeting took place.

Once he has alerted the council to his new plan, all he can do is wait. “This is the best situation I’ve been in so far,” he said. “This is the most professional operation we’ve put together and we have all the best people involved.”

The “crypto devotee” says he makes a living by buying bitcoin every month and selling it when he needs money.

Howells says he tries not to think too much about what his share of the money will allow him to do, if the hard drive is ever found in working order. “Otherwise,” he said, “you’re just driving yourself crazy.”

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