James Howells, an IT worker living in the United Kingdom, knows exactly where his misplaced 7,500 bitcoins are but the city council where he lives won't let him retrieve them. They say it's against the law.
According to a report published in The Telegraph, Howells began mining bitcoin on his personal laptop in 2009. In 2013, though, "after I had stopped mining, the laptop I had used was broken into parts and sold on eBay," Howells tells The Telegraph.
He kept the drive he used to collect the bitcoins, "so if bitcoin did become valuable one day, I would still have the coins I mined."
But, while cleaning his home in 2013, he mistakenly put it into a waste bin at his local landfill site in Newport, South Wales, where it got buried.
Now, with bitcoin's value hovering just above $17,000 Wednesday, according to digital-currency website CoinDesk, Howells' 7,500 lost bitcoins are worth more than $127 million. CoinDesk's Bitcoin Price Index tracks prices from digital currency exchanges Bitfinex, Bitstamp, Coinbase and itBit.
More than four years' worth of garbage have poured into the dump since his mistake, which would make any recovery effort a significant undertaking. "A modern landfill is a complex engineering project and digging one up brings up all sorts of environmental issues, such as dangerous gasses and potential landfill fires," Howells says. "It's a big, expensive and risky project."
He wants to try, regardless, but the Newport City Council won't allow it.
In an interview with tech website Wired, a council spokesperson said their offices have been "contacted in the past about the possibility of retrieving a piece of IT hardware said to contain bitcoins," but digging up, storing and treating the waste could cause a "huge environmental impact on the surrounding area."
The landfill reportedly contains about 350,000 tons of waste and 50,000 more tons are added every year.
"It is likely that the hardware would have suffered significant galvanic corrosion due to the presence of landfill leachates and gases," officials pointed out. Even if the drive is recovered, it may not work after being exposed to weighty and possibly toxic waste for so long.
Plus, the operation, which could require specialty-construction vehicles, might cost millions. And while Howells has the "financial backing in place" to fund such an effort, according to Wired, he needs permission: The landfill is not open to the public and trespassing would be considered a criminal offense.
Cloud-based services now help prevent physically losing hardware where bitcoins are stored, but there are still a few reasons to be wary of cryptocurrencies: Some experts fear it could be outlawed, note it's hard to value accurately and say buying it is more gambling than investing.
Still, many believe the positives outweigh the negatives. Even Howells still tracks bitcoin's price, he tells Wired, "but that's not because I'm obsessed with the price because of my lost coins. I have multiple tickers running with prices in different fiat currencies," not just in bitcoin.
And if Howells does recover his bitcoins, he'll probably cash some in. "Who knows for sure?" he says. "I probably would have sold 30 or 40 percent in 2013 to invest in property and other cryptocurrencies."
With the value of bitcoin continuing to rise, some speculate that eventually Howells' lost coins will be worth a fortune and the city council will be obligated to allow a search.
"And obviously," Howells says, "they would get a nice percentage as a gift or donation."
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