Earthquake victims to receive immaterial damage payouts

Earthquake damaged home in Usquert, Netherlands. Photograph: Natascha Wolbers

Residents of Groningen province with homes damaged by human-induced earthquakes will be able to get immaterial damage compensation, in addition to other existing compensations, for the first time starting next year. This was recently announced by the Groningen Institute for Mining Damage (IMG), a Dutch governmental agency that reimburses homeowners for earthquake damage.

The new immaterial damage claims are for those suffering “pain, grief, loss of joy, or spiritual distress” linked to earthquakes, according to the IMG’s website. But residents question whether the claims will be handled properly.

After decades of natural gas extraction in Groningen, the ground has become unstable in certain areas and earthquakes have become a recurring problem for residents. While mostly minor tremors, they still often cause damage to homes and other buildings. Some residents of the earthquake-stricken area are either forced to move, live in fear of their homes collapsing, or agree to accept compensations that often don’t cover all of the damage. A 2017 study from the University of Groningen showed that people with earthquake damaged homes are more likely to suffer from stress-related symptoms.

The Groningen gas field, the largest in Europe, spans a large portion of the province. Drilling started in the late 1950s but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the earthquakes started. While property damage claims were once made directly to Shell, the IMG has since taken over the process. This came after drawn-out legal battles and a 2018 decision by a Dutch court to create the new entity for handling claims.

“Why will we begin compensating immaterial damages? Well, because the law tells us to do so,” said a spokesperson from the IMG, referring to legal battles won by homeowners that forced the government to pay them back for emotional stress. The spokesperson said that the IMG believes most claimants will be satisfied with their immaterial damage payouts, citing the fact that the majority don’t appeal their property damage settlements.

“But the lack of appeals does not mean that earthquakes victims are satisfied with their settlements,” says Natascha Wolbers, a resident of the small town of Usquert who plans on making an immaterial damage claim. She noted that many of her neighbors don’t have the time or resources to file an appeal, with most simply accepting the original amount even if it doesn’t cover everything. “I think the same will happen with the compensations for immaterial damages,” she said.

Wolbers has twice filed appeals to settlements from the IMG because they wouldn’t pay for certain damage that she says was clearly caused by the earthquakes. “I spent three whole days writing out point-point, picture-by-picture why certain damage should be reviewed differently” said Wolbers. “Why do we have to fight every step of the way?,” she wonders.

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