On 2 February 2022, Dutch public prosecutors announced that they had opened a criminal investigation into the Dutch arm of Tata Steel and Harsco Metals Holland BV for alleged intentional and unlawful pollution of surface water. The decision follows a complaint brought by a lawyer representing 800 individuals and organisations against the companies in May 2021.
The decision to open up a criminal investigation continues the growing trend in climate change litigation to hold corporates and their executives accountable for climate change issues. As the prosecutor confirmed, "examining the role of executives within these companies will be part of the criminal investigation".
The Netherlands has paved the way for civil climate change litigation in Europe with the landmark decisions handed down by the District Court of The Hague on 26 May 2021 in the matter of Milieudefensie et al. v. Royal Dutch Shell PLC, where the Dutch court concluded that Royal Dutch Shell had breached their duty of care owed to Dutch residents.
The Dutch prosecutor's criminal investigation may now see the Netherlands pave the way for further criminal climate change actions and investigations throughout Europe.
Whatever the outcome, opening a criminal investigation should serve as a stark warning to all corporates and their executives that activists are driving an increasing momentum to hold them accountable.
Prosecutors said they had informed the companies they had started the probe for alleged “intentionally and illegally introducing hazardous materials into the ground, air or surface water, with danger to public health as a possible result.”