Quakes Giving Dutch Province 'A Makeover We Don't Want'

By Sarah Kent Features Dow Jones Newswires

GRONINGEN, The Netherlands -- Irma de Joode was talking on the phone with her brother when she heard what sounded like rolls of thunder and felt her entire house jump beneath her feet.

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The Aug. 16, 2012, earthquake was the biggest ever to rock the flat, green plains of this northern Dutch province. The source was Europe's biggest natural gas field.

The earthquake was one of more than 300 temblors since 1991 that Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp. and the Dutch government acknowledge were caused by their activities at the Groningen gas field.

The quakes have led to nearly 80,000 damage claims by residents here, prompted a court to order a criminal investigation into the Shell-Exxon joint venture, and led to government limits on gas production to which the companies object.

The quakes have disrupted life in this once wealthy agricultural region, which spools across the north of the Netherlands to the sea in a verdant band punctuated by country villages, redbrick farmhouses and medieval churches.

Many of those historic structures are now scarred with cracks and ugly supportive struts; some have been torn down entirely. Property values have plummeted. Buildings here are sturdy, but they weren't made to withstand earthquakes, which were virtually unheard of in this part of the world until the early 1990s, when the gas quakes were first acknowledged.

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In early 2013, after another quake shook her house, Ms. de Joode noticed serious structural damage to her home, a historic 19th-century farmhouse. She and her family put in a claim for compensation from Shell and Exxon's joint venture and pressured government officials for help to reinforce the building.

The process has taken five years of constant work, Ms. de Joode said, and disrupted the family's life.

"The stress you have every day," she said. For months after the damage, she lived with uncertainty over the house's stability. "I was very scared. When I had my grandchildren over, I tried to stay in safe parts of our house."

Shell and Exxon's joint venture, Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij BV, or NAM, has vowed to pay for any earthquake-induced damage. It has settled thousands of compensation claims and poured money into government efforts to reinforce local buildings and stimulate the local economy. Efforts are under way to try and improve the claims process.

Some residents see the benefits. Cees de Vries received financing through the economic fund NAM helped establish to boost his business -- a landmark hotel in the village of Loppersum.

"People don't like that I say this," Mr. de Vries said. "I think without the earthquakes this whole region would have been going downhill anyway and now there's a lot of activity."

But Mr. de Vries acknowledged the continuing earthquakes create uncertainty for homeowners and businesses. Reinforcing buildings in the earthquake zone is expected to take years.

In a region known for its historic architecture, there are worries the new construction won't preserve the region's character, said Susan Top, secretary of the Groninger Gasberaad, a coalition of local civil society groups.

"We're all very afraid that it will get a makeover we don't want," she said.

Write to Sarah Kent at sarah.kent@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 25, 2017 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)