A truck unloads garbage at a waste-to-energy plant in Dickerson, Md. (Juana Arias for The Washington Post)

Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s “Sustainable D.C.” initiative is aimed at making the District one of the world’s most environmentally advanced cities. But one of the effort’s first steps has drawn the opposition of a wide-ranging group of environmental advocates who are questioning the wisdom of studying the potential of building a “waste-to-energy” facility in the city.

The most common form, though not the only form, of waste-to-energy conversion is incineration — burning trash for electrical power generation. And the prospect of a D.C.-built incinerator has inflamed the D.C. Environmental Network, a group covering more than a dozen green organizations including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and the Anacostia Watershed Society.

In December, the Gray administration announced that it would spend $300,000 on a “comprehensive feasibility study” on building a waste-to-energy plant in the city. Currently, the city sends some of its trash to an incinerator in Fairfax County.

“The District has an opportunity to craft a long-term waste-management strategy that redefines solid waste from a burden to a resource with economic, political and social value,” public works director William O. Howland Jr. said in a statement at the time.

In a letter last month, the Environmental Network asked Gray to take incineration off the table, calling it a “inappropriate and unacceptable solution to our waste management challenges.”

Besides the cost and its impacts on air quality, the group said building an incinerator directly contradicts other goals of the Sustainable D.C. plan, which include an ambitious “zero-waste” target. In other words, the policy of the District is to eventually send no municipal solid waste to landfills, recycling and composting it instead. Building an incinerator, which must be fed with thousands of tons of trash daily, would obviously complicate those efforts.

“The pursuit of a central incineration facility would spark a long legal battle and face fierce opposition,” they wrote, suggesting the $300,000 would be better spent to develop plans for complying with the zero-waste goal.

Howland and acting city environmental director Keith A. Anderson responded to the environmental groups last week, telling them in effect to relax:

“[T]here are many emerging technologies that can be used for waste-to-energy and waste conversion, and we intend to examine many of them,” they wrote. “So while waste-to-energy will be evaluated as one element of the District’s long-term waste management strategy, please be assured that the planned study has no pre-determined outcome.”

The dispute over the study has now led D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) to schedule a hearing on the matter for March 18.

The waste-to-energy concept, Cheh said, “does have a certain superficial appeal.” But after hearing from activists, she said, she became “somewhat alarmed” about the plans.

Cheh, chair of the council’s environment committee, said she is keeping an open mind on the proposal but “I don’t want this study to get legs it shouldn’t have.”

The debate here mirrors a 2011 battle in Maryland over a proposal to grant financial incentives to trash-burning plants akin to those offered for solar, wind and geothermal energy production. Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a bill doing so over the objections of environmentalists.