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GRONINGEN EARTHQUAKES: How house owners Hiltje and Leny Zwarberg shook Dutch Petroleum Company (NAM)

Your home has a red code’, says the NAM representative.
Hiltje: ‘What does that mean?’
“That your house is unsafe.”
‘And then?’
“You have to leave your house.”

Translated extensive extracts from an article published in Dutch language on 16 Dec 2017 by Het Financieele Dagblad. The story of Hiltje and Leny Zwarberg and their battle with the Dutch gas company NAM, jointly owned by Shell and Exxon. 

The house is a ‘difficult case’, the NAM engineers said. Yes, very annoying those cracks. But they came through ‘settlements’ and settlements from the past.”

Is that still okay?” It was these words from his wife Leny who eventually led Hiltje Zwarberg to action. It was her embroidery as well, which gave the problem a frightening perspective in their home. Hiltje had been a marine for fifteen years, Leny had once embroidered the arms of the Marine Corps in a list that was hanging on a wall in their bedroom. Then the cracks came. In the wallpaper.

It started from the bedroom door. One rip stretched up to the ceiling. A second crack went left from the doorpost. Centimetre by centimetre, at an invisible but unstoppable pace, the white wallpaper was pulled apart. The crack crept full length over the wall and behind the frame. Not much later the crack appeared on the other side of the embroidery again.

And at that moment, Leny wondered aloud whether everything would be alright.

So Hiltje called the NAM. The first written response from the Dutch Petroleum Company (NAM) dates from November 22, 2013. ‘NAM has received your damage report in good order and wants to handle your report carefully’, wrote someone from the Permits and Grounds department.

Careful handling? Hiltje (60) must laugh now, on this December day in 2017. Their house in Termunterzijl was declared uninhabitable three years ago. Leny and he are preparing for the fourth Christmas in a rented house in Termunten, the village beyond.

He will fight until his death, Hiltje, a Groninger with a bald head, a moustache, and happy dark eyes. He always laughs. Because whatever they try: they do not get them small. As a marine he spent six winters in Norway. He followed the command training, served on the Antilles, saw half the world. He is not afraid of the devil. And maybe just a stubborn Grunneger.

Anyway, he also realizes that their situation is not ideal. It is an understatement, says his wife Leny (59). Hiltje is looking for attention because he has nothing to hide. Leny, a slender lady with gray hair, is the silent force in the background. Leny is also not afraid of NAM, although she is sometimes bleak. They do not know how long the uncertainty will last.

And they have it all days: at parties, at work, on birthdays. Everyone asks for news on it. It is always about the house.

The house, that is Schepperbuurt 14. His parental home: Hiltje came to live there as a boy of five, with his brother and sister, and later a brother. In Termunterzijl, overlooking the Termunterzijal. A house from 1860 made of red bricks.

Not such a tiny worker’s house as there are so many in North-East Groningen, certainly not such a megalomaniacal farmhouse from this region. Something in between. Simply: a solid and spacious house. With a front door on the side of the water, and a shed behind the house. An ordinary house for an ordinary family.

In 1992 Hiltje and Leny bought that house from his parents. Hiltje had just been wiped out of service and they wanted, with their two sons, to be back in Groningen. So it happened. A third generation Zwarberg became large at the Schepperbuurt 14.

The boys were just out of the house when the wallpaper began to tear. Hiltje did not think about earthquakes. They were not there in Termunterzijl. That was in Loppersum. And that is about thirty kilometers further to the west.

And yet: many of his neighbours had earthquake damage. They heard that at parties. Three hundred people live in Termunterzijl. Everyone knows each other here. The family at the beginning of the village reported as one of the first damage. A phone call to NAM, an inspection, and generous compensation: the problems were resolved. Not everyone in the village is dissatisfied with the NAM.

The first damage valuation of Schepperbuurt 14 is on Tuesday, February 11, 2014. His house is a ‘difficult case’, Hiltje gets to hear. After two months he gets to see the report drawn up by Arcadis, the listed engineering company that has been called in by NAM to deal with claims. So-called settlements, and settlements from the past, would be the cause of the damage. There is doubt about the construction.

Hiltje seems strong. His father has always maintained the house well. And he too. There is a wall crooked, but Hiltje knows from stories that this wall has been crooked for 80 years.

Most problems are in the bedroom. Cracks in one corner of the house. The rest is fine. But with an unstable angle the whole house becomes unsafe.

Hiltje applies for a counter-taxation. To be carried out by Vergnes Expertise, a company from Leek that specializes in earthquake damage.

That second valuation is coming. During the summer. In the intervening months there has been a stir with the NAM. ‘All the actions you take towards the counter-tax assessor are at your own expense, without the NAM’s proposal,’ writes the NAM in June. That touches on a reproach that is ringing around the province: the NAM has far too much influence in claim handling. Still, Hiltje can still understand that the NAM does not want to pay for something that the company is not responsible for.

From the counter-expertise of Vergnes it appears that the cracks on the house are indeed damage to the house. Vergnes strongly advises to have a constructor look at it. But the moment a constructor has to join, he realizes: this is getting bigger than I expected.

On 1 October 2014 he will email the NAM. The findings of Vergnes are then within a few days. It’s about ten o’clock in the morning. ‘The counter-expert assessment has also raised major doubts about the safety of the home. The reports actually speak of a danger of collapse and this causes increasing anxiety and stress within our family ‘, writes Hiltje. He asks if he can do something himself.

The reaction of the NAM comes the same day, at four o’clock. In that email there is also a paragraph about the Termunten area. “For reassurance about the earthquakes. (…) The vibration decreases with the distance to the epicentre where the quake has taken place. On the basis of historical data, and data from the recent quakes, it is not immediately plausible that damage to your home has occurred. ‘
Hiltje is stunned. “For reassurance? There are now two reports in which the safety of the building has been questioned. Is this now the NAM’s working method? “He emails Vergnes, the damage inspector.
Three days later he answers NAM: “I see your mail as very wry humour. (…) You cannot predict quakes in any area. I hope that in the future we can communicate with each other in a businesslike way. ‘

Weekly, sometimes almost daily there is contact between NAM, Arcadis, Vergnes and Hiltje.

Hiltje received an email from Arcadis at the beginning of November: ‘Because the defects that occur in this house are mainly due to a lack of maintenance, possible modification of the construction is in my opinion the responsibility for safety in the first place with the owner.’ I cannot at all agree with this decision ‘, writes Vergnes the same day in an answer to Arcadis and NAM.

And Hiltje writes: ‘I really cannot undressand this.’

He engages the independent counselor. He sets up another inspection. On November 21, a team from Arup to Termunterzijl. That agency investigates damage to buildings in heavier earthquakes. At 9 o’clock in the morning they are in the Schepperbuurt 14. For the third time people look at the walls of the red brick house. The experts are walking around the house, taking photos, looking inside and out. There are beams in the façade. The façade tears at every beam.

Two weeks later is the fourth inspection. Again someone from the NAM and someone from Arup. They do the same every time. Watch and take photos. Consult.

The fifth inspection follows another week later. Then suddenly the house is full. Five people. The NAM, Arcadis, the municipality of Delfzijl, consultancy Arup: they are all in the living room of Hiltje.

Schepperbuurt 14 is considered a serious safety problem, writes Hiltje later that day in a mail to Vergnes. ‘There is a conversation about how to proceed further.’

“I think it’s time that the NAM will explain to you what they are doing,” Vergnes writes back the same day.

On 19 December 2014, Hiltje receives a telephone call. His contact at NAM. Who wants to come over. Hiltje is lock keeper, at the sea locks of Delfzijl. His night shift is just finished. Leny works in home care and has to leave. They meet at eleven o’clock, at home in Termunterzijl. ‘When you come home, we are outside,’ says Hiltje to his wife.

“That is not so bad,” Leny replies.

‘You pay attention’, says Hiltje. This time he does not laugh.

A little later they are sitting at the table. Hiltje, a representative of the NAM, and someone from the municipality. Hiltje asks if they want coffee. And if they have something in it. He drinks black himself.

Your home has a red code’, says the NAM representative.
Hiltje: ‘What does that mean?’
“That your house is unsafe.”
‘And then?’
“You have to leave your house.”

That evening, one week before Christmas, Hiltje and Leny are in a guesthouse in Termunterzijl. Across the road from the deep, overlooking their own house. With a bag and a toothbrush. If the lights had stood in the Christmas tree, they could have seen it from their temporary shelter.

Hiltje parks his white Citroen in the parking lot in front of the Schepperbuurt 14. He can no longer live in his own house: it is declared uninhabitable. With a writ of execution and a cease and desist order of €5,000. But he is still owner. His mortgage simply continues. Hiltje also has the key. He can walk in and out. But why would he do that, in an empty house with a fence around it?

The large stone dragonfly is still hanging at the front door, which opens smoothly. Hiltje walks inside. The central heating is off: if everything is turned off in the winter, the pipes will freeze and get water damage. The floors are swept, in the kitchen cardboard is on the floor. A picture of his youngest son somewhere abroad, is still pinned on the wall. There is nothing more to see: furniture, photos, plants, everything has been removed. The house is empty. A part has been taken to the rented house in Termunten, part of which is stored in the city of Groningen.

The bedroom of Leny and Hiltje was at the front of the house. Barely ten square meters, overlooking the Termunterzijal. Here, right in front of their house, lay their little boat that Hiltje and his brother endlessly redecorated. He made trips with Leny.

Now there are three huge wooden struts in the bedroom. Against the wall on the waterfront. The floor has broken out. The other wall is still intact. White wallpaper. With a discolouration where for years the list with the weapon of the Marine Corps hung. The crack runs right through it.

Initially it is even unclear by whom the Zwarberg family was removed from the home. Hiltje hears from the municipality that the NAM has removed them from their home. That ‘astonishes’ the contact person of the NAM, who wrote on 30 December. ‘We cannot announce a removal by NAM.’

In any case, it quickly becomes clear that the first prognosis of three months before the out-of-home placement is very optimistic. Seven months? Coincidentally, there is a rented house available in Termunten, the adjacent village. Leny and Hiltje are assigned the house.
In the same street where they lived together for the first time thirty years ago.

The NAM pays the rent. For the time being.

In April 2015, four months after the deportation, there is a final interview with NAM. A contractor has made a cost calculation for Hiltje. Creator neighborhood 14 needs to be refurbished for € 223,000. NAM does not agree. Something shifted in the calculation. So-called set-up costs are replaced in the tender by ordinary items. The painting can also be done with lessor qualitatively paint. Then the costs amount to €180,000.

That summer Hiltje and Leny get a letter from De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, the law firm at the Zuidas. The NAM wants to pay € 8000, that’s the end of the letter. For the bedroom € 5000, since an inner wall has been removed and the floor has been removed. For the other damages another € 3000.

Furthermore, the law firm refutes any form of liability of NAM. So-called weak ground, overdue maintenance, setting. The damage has many causes, but the NAM does not consider itself to be one of them.
In addition, the NAM also says the rent in a difficult period. Because the compensation that the company pays is made as a favor, according to De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek’s letter.

The latter makes little impression on Hiltje. At the end of the nineties he fought with a small foundation against the windmills that have been set up around the village. Up to the Council of State. A bailiff suddenly arrived on Friday afternoon. He gave him a reminder of € 5 million, because with his protests he delayed the construction of a wind farm. So no, he is not impressed so quickly.

But he knows that other people are afraid. Hiltje knows a woman who also has a high-level conflict with NAM. She once said to him: “If they ever find me on my stomach in a ditch, then you know who did it.” And here in the village too, he knows people who do not dare to report their damage, because they are afraid that they are then taken out of their home. So yes, here in the Groningen country there is certainly some fear of the NAM. Only not with him.

Some people find it a nasty characteristic of him, Hiltje knows. If he gets himself into something, he wants to find everything to the bottom. That was already the case in his time as a volunteer in the Breebaartpolder. He did tours in that nature area for ten years. On his intercession there was a laboratory, in which he peered through microscopes to single-celled organisms. Micro-organisms that form the basis of life in the Wadden Sea. Extremely fascinating. And you do not want to know what kind of damage a drop of chlorine can cause.

He has now become a half-earthquake expert. For hours he is on the internet. He reads everything. Hiltje attended series of lectures. From university to village house: everywhere he listened to what is happening in the Groningen soil. He can now draw the foundations under his home.

He encountered Martin Blokzijl at one of those countless lectures. Lawyer. Groninger.

Blokzijl thought that Hiltje and Leny were being wronged.

“How are we going to tackle this?” Blokzijl said.
“But I cannot afford a lawyer,” Hiltje replied.
“I did not ask that,” Blokzijl said.
That is how Hiltje got his counsel.
When Leny and he came into the rented house, after a few months the hectic was a bit off. Less contact with the NAM, no more checks of the house, and no more waking up while the torn wallpaper stings at you.

However, Hiltje occasionally searches for the media. Partly due to an item on RTV Noord, NAM withdraws the rental notice quickly.

In the summer of 2016, a year and a half after Leny and Hiltje have had to leave their home in a hurry, an investigation into the subsurface will be carried out at the instigation of the NAM. Executed by Witteveen + Bos. With eight men they stood around the house at the Schepperbuurt. Three boys have dug. Everything was measured. Inside, outside, the walls, the ground. They arrived early in the morning and only left at half past five.

It takes six months before Hiltje gets to read the Witteveen + Bos report. ‘Research shows that the external causes that have been considered, namely earthquakes and subsidence of gas extraction and interventions in water management cannot be regarded as a cause. The probability that damage has occurred or is exacerbated as a result of earthquakes is less than 1% or negligible ‘, says the research. And also: the earthquake vibrations are in the order of magnitude of passing traffic or a thunderstorm.

But how can it be that the bulk of the neighbors have earthquake damage? At least ten houses in their list received compensation. Note that the Creator Area 13 and Creator Area 15 have been compensated for their damage. And exactly their home, Creator neighborhood 14, would stand on weak ground? Hiltje and Leny do not believe that. It will be a lawsuit.

They challenge the NAM.

In March 2017, Hiltje and Leny receive a letter from the court. They must indicate when they have time for the session. The deadline is the end of September. The session is on 3 October.

That is also a well-known accusation in Groningen. The tactics of NAM: slowing down, training, postponing. This leads to a constant latent uncertainty. It smashes people.

The session is in Assen. Hiltje thinks that is so neat. That is the residence of the defendant. The address of the NAM he can dream: Schepersmaat 2. Not that he has ever been there. Because what does he have to look for?

The verdict is pronounced a month and a half later. On November 15th. Hiltje is getting ready to go to an agricultural fair in Hannover with a friend that afternoon.

The judgment extensively discusses technical matters from the Witteveen + Bos report: peak ground acceleration, hypocentrum, the peak value of the vibration speed.

But in the assessment the court says that Witteveen + Bos, despite their investigation, ‘does not exclude that damage to earth from the Zwarberg home can occur’. Moreover, the court is ‘surprised’ by the NAM’s defense. ‘Because it does not correspond with the fact that NAM has awarded compensation for damage caused by earthquakes to a large number of residents in the vicinity of the Zwarberg home.’

Extent of the quakes

On Sunday 12 August 2012, at half past ten in the evening, the ground shook at Huizinge, a village in the Groningen municipality of Loppersum. Strength: 3.6 on the Richter scale.

From that moment on, the Groningen earthquakes were ‘on the map’. There appeared to be a colossal task. Since then, 80,000 claims have been reported, of which some 55,000 have also been recognized. In the so-called interior area – Termunterzijl is located on the edge of the earthquake area – there are about 22,000 houses and 1500 other buildings. They must all be inspected.

The NAM has been squeezed out of the claim file. Now it is up to the National Coordinator Groningen to check the houses. But that is behind schedule.

In the period from August 2012 up to and including September 2017, NAM spent around € 515 million on soil damage, the National Coordinator Groningen reported in September. Of that € 325 million went to direct costs for recovery or compensation. The handling of damage cost NAM about € 190 million.

In short: slightly less than two-thirds of the expenditure goes to direct costs for compensation. 37% goes to legal costs.

Until the end of 2014 there was no unsafe situation, even though the house had been misplaced since time immemorial, the court states. The findings of Witteveen + Bos are swept away. The court is not convinced of their calculation models. ‘NAM has not made it plausible that there is another cause for the damage to Zwarberg’s home than gas extraction. (…) NAM is liable for the damage Zwarberg has suffered as a result of soil movement as a result of gas extraction, in any case consisting of the costs of repairing the cracks and the unsafe position. ‘

Around noon the judge pronounces the verdict. Then the pleuris breaks out in Termunten. No phone is more quiet. Mail, WhatsApp, Hiltje receives messages from all sides during the whole drive to Hanover. Because he wants to thank everyone personally.

In fact, Hiltje does not know why the NAM has done so hard. It will be the timing, he suspects. After the quakes in Huizinge, the NAM has come to realize that it would be very expensive to compensate for the deluge of damage reports. So they went to sleep.

And it has also become a principle issue, he thinks. That is perhaps the most frustrating. Because what are we talking about? Two tons? Maybe three tons? And what will the case have cost?

Hiltje sits at the table of his rented house and grabs a file with letters from De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek. He does not know the hourly rates of a Zuidas lawyer. But that they are expensive is well known. The file is fist-thick. And then there are the advisors, the different appraisals, the time that everyone has lost. No, it will not surprise him if his case by now maybe costs two to three times what his house is worth.

What and how NAM will pay is still unclear. On November 15, NAM was given three months to appeal. ‘If they do that, it will happen on the last day’, says Leny at the dinner table. That would be February 15, 2018. The sun sinks and shines like orange ball over the empty fields between Termunten and Woldendorp.

And, admittedly, of course the court’s verdict was a boost, says Hiltje. But actually he finds it logical. Because he asks the NAM something very real. You break my house; You’re going to fix that. For the umpteenth time the chuckle.

NAM response

The NAM is currently studying the details of the court’s decision ‘after which we weigh up whether or not we will appeal’, says a spokesman for the gas company.

The image that Hiltje paints about people who feel threatened by the NAM ‘we do not recognize’, although the NAM is aware that damage and the possible structural reinforcement of buildings’ can have a major impact on people who have to deal with it. . We have heard before that people do not report their damage, “said the spokesperson.

During the investigations into the home on the Schepperbuurt it was agreed that NAM will pay the rent for the replacement home of Hiltje and Leny. According to NAM, these studies, with the exception of the Vergnes study, have shown that the vast majority of the damage to the house was not caused by earthquakes.

‘NAM is prepared to pay that part for which it is liable, but not the demolition or rebuilding of the entire property. After all investigations were completed and the damage procedure had been completed in the eyes of NAM, NAM indicated that the payment of the rent would eventually be stopped. After this, Zwarberg decided to go to court. In the meantime, consultation has taken place between lawyers. On this basis, it has been agreed that NAM will continue to pay the rent during the course of the procedure ‘, according to the spokesman. His conclusion: “This case is very complex.”


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