Turning aside objections by environmentalists and Indian groups, a federal judge refused to block construction of a 23-mile power line to the University of Arizona's Mount Graham Observatory.

U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marquez ruled Tuesday in favor of the university and the U.S. Forest Service. He found that the power line is covered by an exemption from environmental and cultural laws granted by Congress in 1988 that allowed construction of the three telescopes on the mountain near Safford.

Members of the San Carlos Apache tribe, other American Indian groups and environmental activists have fought the project in eight other lawsuits, claiming it would harm the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel and the spruce forest of the Pinaleno Mountains while desecrating a mountain that is sacred to some Apaches.

Marquez found that the groups failed to prove the power line was part of a second phase of construction that includes four more telescopes. That portion of the project will be subject to environmental, cultural and religious protection laws from which the first three telescopes were exempt.

"We believe this validates the work of the university and the Forest Service, and we're very pleased that the court recognized that," said Buddy Powell, associate director of the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, which oversees the Mount Graham telescopes.

But Robin Silver, a spokesman for the Mount Graham Coalition opposing the project, said the university has been allowed to change the rules to fit its needs. "It's really nice when you own the umpires, meaning Congress," he said.