While other government contractors are shuttering the windows and laying off workers in the face of budget cutbacks, American Capital and Research Corp. is cleaning up.

It's cleaning up Superfund hazardous waste sites, the Boston Harbor, a major nuclear energy complex and more than a dozen military bases. And it's growing at a pace that indicates that for the 1990s the environment is the fast-track.

In five years the Fairfax-based firm has increased its annual revenue to more than $500 million from nearly $46 million and its earnings to more than $8 million a year from less than $500,000.

Just within the last three years, the company has acquired 13 other firms.

With nearly 4,000 employees nationwide, including about 800 employees in the Washington area, the company is one of the largest environmental contractors and "is becoming a major player in the highest profit segment of a rapid-growth industry," said Guy P. Chance, an industry analyst with Scott & Stringfellow Investment Corp.

As it has grown in the past year, the company has added three high-powered outsiders, all known for their ability to raise money, to its board of directors: Canadian investor Samuel Belzberg, who also owns 500,000 shares of the company's stock; Frederic V. Malek, a former Nixon White House staffer who is part of an investor group that acquired Northwest Airlines; and Tony Coelho, a former Democratic House Whip who once ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and is now a managing director of the investment banking firm Wertheim Schroder & Co. Inc.

"All of them have raised money in their day," said ACR Chairman James O. Edwards.

Earlier this month ACR announced that it had formed a joint venture with an investment banking company owned by the Belzberg family to pursue additional environmental business opportunities.

In many ways the growth of the company, which is better known as ICF, reflects the evolution of the nation's environmental concerns.

The first phase of growth involved assessing risks to the environment and trying to forge an environmental policy.

In the 1970s, ICF was principally a consulting firm made up of a handful of Ivy League graduates with strong political ties. Budget director Richard Darman worked there, and ACR Chairman James O. Edwards worked in the Office of Management and Budget and was a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

But as the nation's environmental emphasis shifted from developing policy to cleaning up environmental hazards and trying to eliminate sources of pollution, the nature of the company changed.

In its earlier days the company provided one set of tools: environmental studies, risk assessments and analysis of proposed solutions.

In 1988, it acquired one of the nation's largest engineering companies, the nearly bankrupt Oakland-based Kaiser Engineers, an important addition to the technical expertise it was developing to help move from policy to implementation.

"We used to be able to put all the environmental people in one room," said Jim Werner, who is now a senior environmental engineer with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Previously he worked for ICF. "Now there are 3,000 people doing hazardous waste work," he said. "It's just amazing growth."

Started in 1969 as a small venture capital firm by a group headed by Clarence "Lucky" Lester, a black fighter pilot who fought in World War II, ICF originally set out to help minority businesses win government contracts. It was called the Inner City Fund, then later just ICF, as the company's focus shifted.

Its current incarnation began in 1974, when Edwards joined the consulting firm.

In 1974, the company had about $300,000 in annual revenue. By 1982, revenue had grown to $14.3 million a year, principally from serving as a consultant to the federal government on energy and environmental issues.

In the early 1980s, "we noticed that a lot of the environmental programs, Superfund and {the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976} were moving into a new phase, and we decided to get more scientific and technical," Edwards said.

As the company began growing through acquisitions, it formed a holding company, American Capital and Research, in 1987.

The following year ACR acquired Kaiser Engineers, which was suffering from a failed buyout and losing about $1 million a month. It was a big acquisition -- Kaiser had three times the revenue and about twice the employees of ACR. The acquisition also was strategically important.

It left the firm "extremely well positioned in all parts of the environmental business," said Edwards.

Suddenly, ACR had the ability to do studies, to provide scientific assessment of environmental problems, to help design and engineer facilities to deal with accumulated waste or to prevent further waste accumulations, and to oversee the construction of those facilities.

"Aggressive is the word for ICF, but I think the other word is smart," said the NRDC's Werner.

While the torrid pace of growth at ACR is no doubt difficult to manage, thus far the company shows no signs of problems.

ACR's string of acquisitions has not depressed earnings. In the case of companies that are not profitable, ACR has bought them with cash rather than offering its own stock.

"When we buy companies we do it in a way that is non-dilutionary," said Edwards, indicating he does not want net income or earnings per share to decline along the way. "That is our first criteria."

ACR sold stock to the public for the first time in October 1989. Despite the bad timing -- right after the broad-based market nose dive Oct. 13 -- the initial public offering of 3.6 million shares at $8.50 a share resulted in proceeds of $26.1 million. Of that amount, $20 million was used to reduce borrowings. ACR stock closed Friday at $12.50 a share, unchanged.

ICF Kaiser Engineers is ACR's largest subsidiary, handling environmental work for both private-sector and government clients.

Edwards said he expects private-sector work to grow both as a result of stricter regulation on environmental issues and because of increasing concern about those issues within corporations.

"Every time a 60 or 65 years old manager retires and a 35-year-old takes over, they just have a different view of the whole issue than people who became managers in the '50s, in the age of unlimited horizones and no restraints," he said. "Ultimately, it's going to be good for our business."

In the meantime, however, about two-thirds of ACR's contracts are with some government entity, and about half its contracts are with federal agencies.

Although the company has gradually moved across the spectrum of services needed for cleanup and prevention, it does not take title to hazardous and other waste or haul it away.

Getting into that end of the business "raises by a level of magnitude the risk," said Edwards. It also requires major capital investment.

Although he said the company may ultimately take that step too, for now, "we've been doing so well on the end of the business we're in that we haven't seen the need to go into other areas."

In addition to ICF Kaiser's environmental work, the company also expects to benefit in years to come from the need to replace the nation's deteriorating infrastructure.

"When the money starts flowing, either from privatization or the government, it's going to be an extremely good business," Edwards said.

He said the company is working with the former Urban Mass Transportation Agency chairman Ralph Stanley on a bridge rehabilitation project under which they would propose to repair crumbling bridges in exchange for the rights to collect tolls.

Other subsidiaries of ACR are involved in health issues and information technology.

Another subsidiary, ICF Inc., continues to perform consulting work for the Environmental Protection Agency, although some recent EPA concerns about potential conflicts of interest may limit that work.

The EPA recently proposed rules that would prevent companies from both working on policy governing Superfund projects and on the actual cleanups.

James R. Janis, ACR's executive vice president, said that the rules should not be a problem, since ICF and ICF Kaiser are completely separate entities, even operating on separate coasts.

"Whatever the rules are that EPA establishes we will follow them and have followed them," he said.

A contract on which ICF is the incumbent is coming up for renewal soon, which will force the EPA to deal with the question of whether the two subsidiaries are sufficiently independent of each other, said David O'Connor, director of procurement for the EPA.

If the EPA decides they are not, "We'll argue, and if we can't argue, we'll see them in court," said Edwards.

"Because we don't propose to be excluded from being able to bid on subjects where there is no conflict of interest."