When East Palestine, Ohio, resident Lonnie Miller stood to give her testimony to a Pennsylvania state senate committee last week, the audience rose to stand with her.

That show of unity stood in stark contrast to the failures of myriad government agencies and Norfolk Southern, whose train derailed on Feb. 3, 2023, in the eastern Ohio village on the Pennsylvania border.

“Did you know that our residents have been told by scientists and doctors that they cannot treat the chemicals in their bodies, but they can treat the cancers the toxins will cause?” Miller said. “Each one of us can only speak to our own story and truths, but one thing we all have in common (is) this disaster has destroyed friendships, family relationships, and devastated a once close-knit community.”

Miller’s comments came during testimony to the Pennsylvania state Senate Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee. The committee held a field hearing at the Darlington Volunteer Fire Department in Beaver County, Pa., which borders the state line.

Committee Chair Doug Mastriano said that on Tuesday, he visited Leslie Run, a waterway in East Palestine where dead fish were found floating days after the derailment.

“The water was churning, and because it was churning, I could smell that sweet, metallic smell a year later,” he said. “This whole thing is gross negligence driven by greed and gross coverup for the missteps and failure to declare an emergency.”

Despite residents and lawmakers such as U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) pushing for more than a year, President Biden has refused to declare a state of emergency for East Palestine, which would have provided greater access to resources. Questions were also raised at the hearing about why the Pennsylvania National Guard was not deployed to Beaver, Lawrence and other nearby counties to provide clean water, set up emergency shelters for affected residents, and create fenced-in areas for livestock and other animals.

Sheila Stiegler is a farmer in Ellwood City, Pa., growing much of her family’s needs, including free-range poultry. She also provides childcare, and she said she remains apprehensive about the safety of the environment.

“The only thing that separates us (from East Palestine) is mileage,” she said. “We all breathe the same air. Vinyl chloride was detected hundreds of miles away in the Ohio River. There are many issues at hand, and having to live in the environment here, I would suggest that lawmakers (who) side with the railroad come here and be a resident of our fine communities. We welcome the opportunity to share the illnesses and concerns as a result of this horrific event.”

According to its website, Norfolk Southern has committed more than $100 million in aid to East Palestine and continues to operate an office in the village where residents can apply for more assistance. However, those who have received funds described a process that can feel demeaning and leave them wondering whether a request will be approved. The rail company recently discontinued housing assistance, which had been paying hotel bills for some residents.

Several people who testified before the committee said they considered their homes lost. Some have taken out second mortgages or drained their retirement savings, while others have moved into campers and other temporary residences.

Shirley Lambright and her husband operated a 32-acre farm in Darlington, Pa., which has been in the family for more than 100 years and is less than one mile from the site of the derailment in Ohio. They had no mortgage, and her husband was retired.

She said no authorities knocked on their door to tell them about the planned vent and burn of vinyl chloride. They heard a broadcast over the emergency alert system, telling them to evacuate within seven minutes.

“I can’t find my shoes in seven minutes. How am I going to get everything…into a vehicle and get far enough away that it’s not going to hurt us?”

Despite the anxiety over financial matters, it is the health impacts that drive deep-seated fears.

Lori O’Connell and her family tested positive for vinyl chloride and benzene. Her husband has developed a rare form of male breast cancer. Her daughter was recently tested at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital for the presence of cancer.

They live 3.4 miles from the derailment site. “We didn’t have any trouble with our well-being until after this,” she said. “Now, I’m just going to use some common sense here. If everything for 25 years has been status quo and you have a major chemical spill and a derailment and toxic plume come over your house and then everything changes, common sense tells me that that’s the problem.”

She also said that mice from the fields around their 100-year-old farmhouse had been frequent visitors since they lived there, but since the vent-and-burn operation, they have not seen any critters.

“Toxicologists have no idea what to do, what to say, how to help us,” she said. “Nobody does because this has never happened. So, we’ve all become test dummies. We’re lab rats, and I’m pretty sure they killed all the mice.”

O’Connell also described Biden’s February visit as a “debacle.” She said that residents who have attended meetings and spoke up about the problems they’re having were invited to speak with Biden.

“Isn’t that why he came here? To hear from the residents?” she said. “I am angry. I am angry at my local government, my county government, my state, and my federal because the help we have received in this township is…nothing. Nothing. And it’s (in)excusable that as taxpaying citizens in the state of Pennsylvania, that we should have to go through this.”